No Where Near Being a Master

Every time I paint, I paint a masterpiece. It’s true. I am completely in love with most of my paintings as I’m painting one and right after I finish it. Then, with few exceptions, I’m not in love with it any more. Sometimes I’m on to the next one, sometimes not.

Maybe the reason I’m not a “master” is because I never got serious about painting. The pity there is that I’m not good at a lot of things and I approach the surface not knowing what’s going to happen. Maybe no artist knows what’s going to happen.

There’s a wildlife artist whose work I like very much, Greg Beecham. His work is amazing. He offers lessons — I’d like to learn some things about his technique. I’m pretty sure he uses glazes, something I’d like to try, but haven’t figured out. I watched a segment of one of his lessons and what intrigued me wasn’t him, what he was saying, or how he was painting, but how he’d literally drawn everything onto the painting surface somehow. It resembled the surface of a paint-by-number kit from back in the day.

When I approach the surface, it’s with colored pencils. Depending on the painting I’m imagining, I might have a small version in water color like this one for a BIG painting I started two years ago and that now overwhelms me. Usually I just block in main areas of color and that’s it for “drawing.”

Sometimes I draw elements of the painting and then take my painting from the drawing, but I don’t normally draw much on the painting surface. In my mind there’s a difference between a drawing and a painting. I think most artists have their ‘approach.”

I drew this painting on an envelope at a conference. There are a lot of strange things in this painting. First, I painted it in California but it is a painting of the San Luis Valley down to the contour line of the San Juans as you see them from the 160 between Monte Vista and Alamosa, pure accident. Second, it was inspired by the stranger than fiction tale of having written about my own family in Savior without knowing it at the time. When I did genealogical research later and discovered that, I realized that all I’m ever going to find as a writer is something about myself and the entire planet is an immense graveyard of bones and stories.

I integrated a quotation from Goethe as the bottom strata of the land where “I” am digging. It says: “How all in a single whole doth weave, one in the other works and lives.” This painting hangs in my living room along with another that is more mysterious, even to me.

The World is Out There

I didn’t fully understand this painting until I’d lived here for a year. I painted it in California few years before I moved. It began as a painting for my stepson and his wife, a street scene of New York I started in oils and realized it would be better as a watercolor. Quite a distance from one to the other…

My paintings — for me — fall into two categories. Personal paintings and landscapes. Only one landscape has crossed the line a little bit.

I don’t have — for myself — an identity as an artist. It would take more painting for me to figure that out. Mostly I experiment and play.

In school, I got encouragement from some teachers and outright discouragement from others. Over the course of my life, what this gave me was freedom. I didn’t even try to make a living as an artist. I didn’t believe I could, I understood the competition and the difficulty, and art went into the “garage,” the “shed,” and now the back room. It’s good that it did. Most of us are not going to be “great artists.” I’ve had some work hang in juried shows and sold most of my bigger paintings which is good because they take up space, but I think the best I can do is enjoy painting.

Natural Pigments #5

All my paintings kind of look the same because winter in the Rio Grande Riparian Zone looks pretty much the same everywhere. Today I decided to try painting all in one “swoop” and learned from my friend, Rita Cirillo, painting that way is called Alla Prima. Basically, painting wet into wet. I’m not an artist that mixes a lot of colors and with the natural pigments that hasn’t worked really well since the colors are all, essentially, dirt. They mix all-right with each other and with white, but they are also what they are, no matter what.

This little painting is the work of an afternoon, basically two hours.

I think I’m finished for a while. There is nothing new happening in the paintings now, but who knows.


I love Federico Fellini’s films. I think if I’d had the opportunity to know him, I might have liked him, too. I first learned of him — his films — when I was a little kid and a then-scandalous “foreign” (OH MY GOD!) film came out. My parents went to see La Dolce Vita. My brother and I had a babysitter that night. All I remember hearing about it the next day was, “I don’t like subtitles.”

I watched Nights of Cabiria in a college film class. Afterward, my teacher explained what Fellini was doing. I listened without being convinced. It’s an incredibly dark film made before Fellini broke from the post-war vision of most Italian directors.

The next Fellini film I heard about was Satyricon. There was a big article about it in Life Magazine that sparked my curiosity. I was in college, and Satyricon was at the Denver art theater, the Flick. A guy from the Colorado School of Mines was trying to date me. He picked me up at the dorm, took me to the theater, and expected me to pay half. THAT wasn’t my idea of a date at all. We didn’t see the movie and I never saw him again.

Eight years later my best friend, her boyfriend and I went to see City of Women at Denver’s Vogue (vague) Theater. It was hilarious, and it beat out all previous films in my experience for quantities of phallus images (to be fair also images of birth canals). As we were leaving the theater, we looked in the window of the nearby Mexican restaurant at all the cocktuses and laughed.

Somewhere in there I had decided that God had abdicated responsibility for guiding my fate and had subcontracted to Federico Fellini. I’d told my friend this one night over dinner. She just laughed at me until one of the songs in City of Women was this disco hit by Gino Soccio that she’d heard ONLY at my house. It convinced her. πŸ˜€

Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film about failure, the artistic vision vs. investors, monogamy vs. human nature, the constant pulls on the human heart and the artist’s imagination was my best friend for a long time. Whenever I felt discouraged about teaching, writing, love, life, money, identity, I watched 8 1/2.

In 2004, in the midst of my Felliniesque life, I even gave a paper at a professional conference. The topic was “The Image of the Hero.” My mind went right to Fellini’s corpus. I named the hero of Fellini’s films “Old Half Head,” the nickname given to a statue of Julius Caesar standing in the town square of the movie version of Fellini’s home town, Rimini, in the film Roma. Half of Caesar’s head has broken off. I saw this image over and over and over in Fellini’s films, and over time, realized that it represents what an artist does to himself when he/she gives up, gives in, loses faith. The “Fellini hero”, in many films, “half-heads” “himself.”

The protagonist of La Dolce Vita half-heads himself in the very last scene of the movie. As construction proceeds in a subway in Roma, a Roman villa is discovered and there is a floor mosaic of Fellini with part of his head broken away. In 8 1/2 the hero, Guido, stops short of half-heading himself with a pistol. The half-head is what happens when an artist loses faith. There is also “half-heading” in I Vitelloni, Intervista, and the unfinished Voyage of G. Mastorna.

I haven’t yet lost faith in the journey, even though it often seems dark and desperate. The important thing of man today is to hang on, not to let his head droop but to keep looking up through the tunnel, perhaps even inventing a way of salvation through fantasy or will-power, and especially through faith. For this reason, I think the work of artists is really important today. Fellini on Fellini

P.S. I just learned that yesterday Fellini would have been 100 years old. ❀

Rio Grande in January (Natural Pigments Day #4)

I don’t know if it’s finished. It will depend what the colors do as the paint dries.

When I paint, I tend to bring bring what I love closer to me in the painting and make the things I love larger than in real life or laws of perspective allow. When I began this, the mountain was immense, something you’d see in the Cascades, maybe.

And when I finished the painting I saw I’d brought the river closer to the shore than it actually is in real life. Two things I love most here are the mountains and my river. I dealt with the mountain today, but did not move the river. Just imagine I took a few more steps… ❀


I’ve had this paintbrush since the late 1970s. It’s my main brush. I’m using it on the painting I’m working on now. It’s about an inch wide and has a short handle which is useful when I’m not using an easel.

It has a history. It did the watercolors for the YWCA in 1978 — in fact, the YWCA bought it for me when I was their artist and I was paid in art supplies. πŸ™‚ It did most of the paintings for my one-woman show back in 1981.

It painted all the “funnyture” back in the ’90s as well as some landscapes when I was painting in acrylics. Sometime in there my brother, who was also an artist and had taught art, grabbed the brush and gave me a big lecture on brush care. Among other things, he trimmed it to a very useful shape so this absolutely GREAT brush got even better and more useful.

I have a LOT of brushes. It’s a beautiful bouquet. But this morning when I started to paint the details I reached for the oldest brush I own.

Many of these brushes have a story. Some I bought, but most were left to me by an artist friend who’s dead and others a gift from an artist friend who’s lost his sight to macular degeneration. My friend who died? She was once my boss at a language school. She retired, and there was a big retirement party for her. We all chipped in to buy her gifts. The main gifts were paint and brushes. I felt a stab of envy seeing her new, beautiful brushes. I wished I had them — at the time I had two brushes — the one in the featured photo and a 1/2 inch brush of a similar type. I also had no money to buy more. I wished I had the time to paint. I wished a lot of things hard-working people who struggle to make ends meet wish. I hated myself for my feelings, but I shrugged them off as human nature.

They’ve been well used. Both Sally and Michael were productive painters. Some brushes are worn and brittle, carrying their painting history in their broken bristles. And, every painter has his or her own way of approaching the surface. Sally’s was different from mine though I wouldn’t say that our styles are completely different. I have yet to use one of Sally’s brushes, but maybe this time. My blind friend has a very different style from mine and has trimmed his brushes pretty drastically to do what he wanted them to do. I love them, too.

The basic differences between brushes are what the bristles are made of and the shapes of the brushes. I tend to use soft brushes with sharp ends, basically brights and flats (sounds like music!). Sally used filberts and rounds.

Not my brushes…
“A Basic Oil Painting Brush Kit, from left to right: bright bristle, filbert bristle, small and large flat bristles, an old bright bristle cut into with scissors (for making loose ragged brushstrokes), Winsor & Newton Sceptre Gold II round, assortment of Winsor & Newton Monarch brights, flats and filberts; and a fan bristle. Article contributions from Cherie Haas

There’s a lot out there instructing us how to use brushes and it’s probably good, but I think the best lesson is one’s own hand, the surface, the paint and the effect we are searching for. I’m very far from God’s gift to painting, and the ONE great bit of teaching I got in my life for the use of brushes is to use the biggest one you can. Then, somewhere down the road, you might need to put in small things with a small brush, but wait. Do what you can with the biggest brush you can.

Work in progress...

Natural Pigments, Day 4

Mt. Blanca

Got up this morning and knew I wanted to paint snow. Since it is NOT falling but rather it is MELTING, paint might be my best hope…

When I hike, I take photos and some of the photos are essentially sketches. Some artists think painting from photos is wrong, but I don’t think there’s any moral imperative about how someone paints. I usually take photos of places I love, most often places that are familiar to me, places I have actually SEEN. The camera helps me compose. I don’t draw much. I’m a painter and even when I “sketch” it’s going to be kind of painterly. I dunno’ why. My wonderful drawing teacher, Jean Schiff, noted one day, “You’re a painter.” From then on, in our drawing class, I drew with inch-wide brushes carrying wet black or white paint to the cardboard that had replaced my drawing tablet. It wasn’t perfect, but…

When I sketch, it’s with colored pencils — watercolor pencils — always with the thought of dragging water over the lines.

So, yesterday I took a photo of a view that was completely surprising. Sometimes the light and wind has the visual effect of bringing the mountains closer visually. That happened yesterday.

The colors I used today that are not part of the natural pigments set are cerulean blue, which I underpainted in the lower portion of the sky, zinc white to tint the blues, for the snow on the ground and light in the sky, and Gamblin’s Radiant White for the snow on Mt. Blanca. Everything else is from the set of natural pigments. The painting is small, 5″ x 7″.

My Lives as a Famous Artist

OK, first of all, we all know I’m writing “tongue in cheek” when I describe myself with the word “famous”…

There have been a few times when I’ve been completely absorbed in making visual art. One of them I was working for the Denver YWCA and being paid in art supplies. I could go to Meiningers in Denver and buy anything I needed and keep whatever I didn’t use. Everyone knew I was buying extra; I had a quiet mandate from the YWCA director to do just that. Five sheets of watercolor paper for posters and five sheets in case I failed.

It was great. I did illustrations for brochures and posters for events. I couldn’t afford art supplies at all on my graduate student stipend but working for the Y, I ended up with nice watercolors and silk-screen equipment. For an art table, I used the dining room table. As part of this, I got to go to a lot of fancy parties.

A few years later, after the visual art thing had gone underground (as it does) and I was being a “famous” writer, I met a guy named Wes Kennedy who looked uncannily like my brother, Kirk Kennedy. It was a little creepy, but we got to be very close friends. He was determined to become a legit artist. Working in the mailroom of the Denver law firm where I was a paralegal was just a way to eat. He reawakened my sleeping visual artist and we spent most Monday nights in the life drawing sessions that were held at the historic Muddy Waters of the Platte.

Wes was very determined to “get a show.” “I gotta’ get a gallery show, Martha,” he said over and over, like not getting one meant he was a failure, traipsing around town with his work, all done on paper, most in gouache, some in pastel. Finally he got a show and we both lugged his work — now mounted with glass — to the gallery that was showing his work.

Then I, with suddenly a LOT of artwork in my apartment, decided to see if I could get a show. I didn’t have any particular drive to get a show in a gallery. I just wanted to hang it up somewhere. I lugged some of my stuff to a coffee house, Nepenthes, and they said, “Sure.” That pissed off Wes to the point where he didn’t talk to me for a month or so after saying, “I try for a YEAR to get a show, and you just go to Nepenthes?” and he slammed the door behind him, not thinking of the difference between a show in a coffee house and a show in a gallery but OH WELL. But he showed up the night before my show and said, “You can’t carry your shit in your Bug. I’ll take your stuff in the morning and help you hang it,” and he did.

I take myself seriously as a writer, but have never taken myself seriously as a visual artist. As I’ve been working on these little Christmas tree decoration paintings which teeter the line between “craft” and “art,” I thought about that. My mom was the opposite of supportive of my brother’s and my “forays” (Kirk did somewhat more than make forays) into the life of an artist. She was objectively nasty about it. “Art’s a dirty word in this house!” she would proclaim. She really hated it, and since I lived to please her, I kind of knuckled under.

I’m grateful for her attitude as I sit here typing a blog post at the “end of the day.” As I’ve been painting pretty much all day every day for the past week or so I’ve had a blast. It’s fun discovering what a period of dormancy has nurtured and what the Valley has taught me in the interval. I did some good watercolors last winter and a good oil, and then, nothing. Painting these little landscapes as been so much fun — and I realized that many artists do small “studies” of something they might hope to paint “for real.” One of the little paintings is just that. At 2 x 3 inches it could emerge quickly and naturally, an idea that’s been incubating for nearly 2 years. If my mom had been supportive, I don’t think this would have been half as much fun over the years. I would have been driven to make a living from it and 1) I’m not that good, 2) it would have eliminated visual art from my life as a source of joy.

As I drove to Del Norte yesterday — only to find the museum closed — and looked at the various edges of a storm front reaching and receding over the San Juans here and there, I was, as always, captivated by the light and colors. Winter is incredibly beautiful (to me) here. All shades of white, gold, silver, gray and cerulean. All in motion, changing all the time. As I drove these beautiful scenes seemed to go straight into my heart, skipping my eyes and mind completely. And I thought, “I’ve lived here long enough now that this is part of me. It come into my heart through my eyes and comes out again, transformed, through my hands.”

(Featured photo is Wes hanging one of my paintings at Cafe Nepenthes)

Little Christmas Paintings

I got the idea of doing tiny paintings as Christmas ornaments from Chris Mallaband-Brown who did many lovely ones to sell at a craft show. Her’s are far more sophisticated than mine. They’re very tiny — 2 x 3 inches (in metric more-or-less 4 cm x 6 cm) so there’s not a lot of space for, you know, a story painting.

I shared them on Facebook and an artist friend said, “You should sell them at the museum” so I contacted the museum and they said, “Absolutely!” So now I’m a famous painter. They all have a bit of glitter but it doesn’t show in the photos. The trees are the biggest hit so far (which is why there are so many — two of them are already sold).

I hope to have 12 I can take on Friday with some kind of display that I have yet to figure out. Ideas welcome. It has to be cheap, simple and homemade. I thought of getting a tumbleweed and sticking it in some clay and hanging them from the “branches.”

Then this one, which isn’t for sale…

Not Much News from the Back of Beyond

Checking in — as the title tells you, there’s not much news here in the Back of Beyond which is why it’s the Back of Beyond and why I live here. I’ve been attempting to work on the slo-mo novel in progress and prepare for the little event on December 7.

The one VERY cool thing that’s happened is an argument FOR the Internet. I was prepping for my gig in two weeks and, in the process, looked up a book I stole back in 1981, China Changed My Mind. Wanted to know more about it, I googled it and to my immense surprise it has a website put up by the stepson of the author. The book tells the experiences of a young Welshman who, believing he was a conscientious objector, joined the Friend’s Ambulance Convoy and drove medical supplies from Chongqing to the Burma Road. The book was (obviously) memorable. The website has several hours of recordings of this author being interviewed for the Imperial War Museum. So here I am, in 2019, listening to this man’s voice. I contacted the website owner and we’ve been corresponding a little. Pretty amazing.

So far the show at the museum has drawn people in. I haven’t sold any books, but I’ve sold ten packs (I think) of notecards. The packs of cards are left over from the “olden days” when I was participating in an artists’ co-op (RIP). I’m selling them at cost, $5/pack, so I’m not really making money, but the money I invested in them was gone long ago so it kind of feels like I’m making a little something.

It’s made me think, again, about making money through my creative ability. I’ve never made money from writing. I have made money from painting. Is that a message?

I also talked to the museum director about my mother’s moccasins. My mom was a teacher on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana back in the 1940s. The mother of one of her students made her a pair of moccasins. Because “the future is uncertain and death is always near” I have wanted the moccasins to be somewhere where they would be appreciated and cared for. The Rio Grande County Museum will take them and their story. I’ve also contacted the Bighorn County Museum in Montana where the moccasins most properly belong. If they want them, they get “first dibs.” If not, I’ll be very happy to have them nearby.

That’s my news. I’ve kind of been reading posts from time to time. I don’t know if I will ever go back to blogging every day, but who knows.

OH — this guy’s album has been nominated for a Grammy. It’s not my kind of music, and this song doesn’t seem to say much, and the words are unintelligible, but this beautiful video shows you the San Luis Valley, Heaven, where I get to live every day.

How Green is Blue???

There is no blue bluer than the blue broken heart when first love goes south. Only someone green to life feels that. Other pains are certain to come later, but never that one again.

After that a person might become a painter with a less metaphorical perspective on green and blue.

The most beautiful blue (historically) is Ultramarine blue. I’ve written about it at length here but in case you don’t want to go read that, the color comes from Lapis Lazuli and, in medieval times was used only on the robes of the most holy people — Jesus and his mom.

The annunciation by Giusto de’ Menabuoi in the Baptistry of the Cathedral, Padova

To my eye, ultramarine is a greenless blue. In fresco — as in the painting above — ultramarine blue (which is made of crystals resulting from lapis lazuli when it’s ground to a powder) magically bonds with the gypsum in the plaster, miraculously reflecting light from the myriad microscopic faces of the crystalline ground. In medieval times ultramarine blue was rare so, naturally, extremely expensive. Even now, the real ultramarine blue made from lapis is $35 for a 3 ml tube. I bought one a couple years ago. I also bought real gypsum painting ground for oil paint. It needs to be mixed and cooked, and so far, that’s the hold up.

We now have synthetic ultramarine blue which is as ultramarine blue as the real deal.

“Knight” stand (a piece of furniture) the sky is pure ultramarine blue acrylic

The oil paints I use are made in Portland by Robert Gamblin’s company. Gamblin himself began as a restorer of painting. His beautiful ode to ultramarine blue says everything: In Praise of Ultramarine Blue

“Memorial” by Robert Gamblin — it seems to me to be Ultramarine, white, Cerulean with Alizarin Crimson touching the clouds

Ultramarine blue is one of the most versatile blues. It mixes well with most other colors and gives greens and sky that are as natural as morning. It’s usually the blue included in beginning painting sets.

Other blues tend more to green. Cerulean blue — another useful blue, one that emerge in the 19th century with the development of synthetic colors — is, to my eye, not as pure as ultramarine. It seems to have a black cast to it and a tinge of green. On a canvas, it looks like the sky with a bit of haze.

Cerulean blue

A couple of years ago I started a large painting. I was so determined to start it that I wasn’t thinking and, in fact, got the underpainting colors of the mountains and sky reversed. It doesn’t matter. This painting is a LONG way from finished, but you can see ultramarine (sky) and cerulean (mountains) together. Though the cerulean is reduced to a thin tint, the difference is still clear. I don’t know when I’ll actually DO this painting. It’s immense. 4′ x 6′ I think…

Sangre de Cristos in Saquache County

Another popular blue is Cobalt Blue, a very vivid blue, made of cobalt and aluminum. I don’t use it at all, though I have in the past. I don’t know why I don’t use it, but I think it’s because, to my eye, it’s a bit too black and green for me. I don’t remember how it mixes, either. The two colors I look for when mixing something into blue are green and purple, so my guess is that it just didn’t give me what I wanted.

Another popular blue is indigo — beautiful color, blue with a tinge of black. If you want to see it, just look at your jeans. They are most likely dyed with some version of indigo. Back in the day, indigo came from India and was pretty expensive, but medieval people discovered the woad plant gave a similar blue. The problem with woad is that growing it depleted the soil so severely that nothing would grow where the woad had grown. But, woad made people rich.

Recently a new blue was discovered — the first new blue in 200 years. It’s beautiful. I have no idea how it works in paint or if it’s even available. It doesn’t even have a real name yet, just a bunch of letters.

“Well, I asked my graduate student to mix three components. One is yttrium oxide, which is white; indium oxide, which is yellow; and manganese oxide, which is black. So the next morning I was in the lab, and he pulled the sample of the furnace, 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was shocked because all the samples came out vivid blue. In the beginning, I thought he made a mistake. I thought it would be like brown or black. Then I asked him to repeat the experiment and we could again get the blue. Blue is the most difficult color to make, and we found it extremely stable, so that made me really excited, and we find this to be the first new blue pigment in 200 years.”

These days we have the Pantone Chart which seems to be a catalog of every color its tints (mixed with white) and shades (maybe mixed with black, maybe mixed with their complimentary color). Until today I didn’t really know what “Pantone” was other than the chips of paint you find at Home Depot or some other hardware or home improvement shop. Write a blog a day and learn, I say.

From the Pantone chart of blues, you can see for yourself how green is blue. As an artist, I mix a lot of these myself. Seeing color is one of the deep pleasures of painting.

Pantone chart, blue to green

In the painting world, the way to make these colors is by adding blue to yellow. Sounds simple, and it is simple, but just as there is a variety of blue, there is variety of yellow… Another post for another day.

My painting of Cornflowers/Bachelor buttons. I knew I’d gotten the color right when a bee attempted to land on the painting. After this (tedious?) tutorial you can probably name the blues (or have them….)

I’ll stop here. This is probably more about blue than you will ever need to know. πŸ™‚

Here’s an awful song about blue… I really think the color deserves better.