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. 🙂 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. 🙂

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

Crestone Studio Tour

First, my foot did fine, and I didn’t wear the heavy hiking boots. It struck me I need to break them in before I head out for a day. I wore my light hiking high topped boots and they were perfect. The cane was very helpful, and I even went up and down stairs, walked on uneven terrain. I walked 3/4 of a mile. 🙂 I only felt pain when I had to stand for a while, BUT during those moments, there was a dog named Max who hung out with me and relieved the pain by being a dog.

We had lunch at a pretty new cafe called “Food is Art.” I had a health food meal straight out of On the Road though I think Kerouac usually had apple pie and ice cream. I went for the next best.

The menu was typical of this arty-farty somewhat cosmopolitan town with things like Thai chicken tacos. The cafe was cute, the people friendly and all was well.

We then proceeded to look for some place we could get the catalog of the show and finally went to the townhall. A very nice man was freezing inside working on a computer. It was a lot warmer outside. We got the catalogs and all went out together. The deer had been feasting on the plum tree beside the building and the evidence of their high fiber diet was all over the lawn. There was, also, in a juniper tree, a very amazing nest made of juniper branches.

No idea who made this but they did good work. Possibly the juniper titmouse.

From there we went to the gallery where I met a woman I liked very much, Jennifer Thomson. I loved her paintings, too. We had a great conversation artist to artist which isn’t always easy. When it happens, I savor it. She had a painting of a Swiss mountain I would have bought if I had any money. She told us how it came to be — it was a painting she did as a student and she told us about those days in her life. The painting below is gouache and seeds and ink — it’s really spectacular in real life

She also teaches art and I bought her workbook — I don’t know that I will do it as a workbook, but it has many of her paintings in it and a lot of her philosophy. She was influenced by Goethe’s theory of colors so, you know…

From there we went to see the work of a quilter, then a photographer (by mistake) named Peter Ismert. He had an amazing photo of Shriver/Wright along the Rio Grande, (where I love to take the dogs) at night, under the Milky Way. The photo took my breath away. I got his card. Maybe he has a small copy. 🙂

From there we went to a house that had three — maybe four? — artists. The one that struck me most died five years ago, the wife of one of the artists I met today. Her name is Robin Ross and her work is mysterious and beautiful, I think. You can learn more about her here.

I especially liked this one:

Coyote Blue

She had written a poem to go with it, but to me it sounded — I mean the painting sounded — like a poem by Paul Valery:

“Patience, patience,
patience in the blue.
In every atom of silence
Is the chance for ripe fruit.”

Patient, patience,
Patience dans l’azur!
Chaque atome de silence
Est la chance d’un fruit mûr!

Crestone itself is an interesting town — dilapidated buildings city-dwelling lovers of western movies would think were a set from a film nestle beside art galleries and yurts. This eclecticism and art is backed up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains which I really saw today for the first time. I don’t have a great photo, but they go something like this:

Artists in the Family

“You have to do like this,” my brother holds up John Gnagy’s book, Learn to Draw that we’d gotten for Christmas. It was part of a kit with pencils, charcoal, a blender (a paper pencil like thing pointed at the end), a eraser, a sandpaper pencil sharpener, a plastic pencil sharpener and some paper.

Gnagy was on TV, too, but we didn’t watch much TV. Parental controls were parents saying, “No, God dammit.”

I looked at the cone my brother was copying from the book, the early pages where Gnagy was teaching about shading.

“You have to see where the light comes from. That’s how you get three dimensions.”

My brother was always able to talk about art in this kind of way, theoretically, abstractly. I couldn’t, can’t, don’t and am seriously frightened by it. I don’t know what kind of artist I am, but not the theory to reality type.

The kit ended up my brother’s. At that point I saw myself as a future designer of women’s clothing and that’s what I was drawing. I also got a Barbie doll that year (1964) and had discovered sewing clothes for her was a lot of fun. I was also painting in oils, landscapes from my mind.

The interesting thing is that my brother was a cartoonist from the very beginning, but he understood how “real” art was important to cartooning. Somewhere inside he wanted to be a “real” artist and he did some amazing “real” paintings, but there was always something missing from them. At heart he was a story teller but needed a page of squares to tell the story. His painting hero was Howard Pyle whose paintings definitely tell stories.

Years later, when we were both in our late twenties, walking on a snowy Denver street near my mom’s house, I got some useful advice from my brother. I had just taken down my one-woman show at Cafe Nepenthes in Denver. My brother didn’t seem to think much of the show — it wasn’t his “thing,” or, maybe, he was jealous. I don’t know. Artists in a family that doesn’t support art? Well, friction is inevitable. He said I was an “abstract expressionist” (which I had to look up, later, in my book, The Shock of the New) and he said my paintings were flat, lacking depth (that damned shadow thing again). I’d sold $1000+ which I don’t think my brother ever did.

Here’s one of the paintings from that show — not really a Modigliani knock-off.

At that point, I was taking a break from painting and was doing linoleum cuts having seen Picasso’s in the National Gallery earlier that month. I was talking to my brother about them and what I was trying to do. I explained how I felt making art was responding to a divine impulse. I told him how I was having a little trouble with the knives I used to carve my linoleum. “It’s easier if the linoleum is warm,” I said.

His response, “Well, Martha Ann, if you want to talk to God you have to play Black Sabbath backwards at 78 and you need some emery paper, honey.”

Fast-forward 20 some years to San Diego. My brother and his then wife came to visit from Northern California. On my wall was a “thing” I’d spent the whole summer making. It was the dark summer of my mental breakdown, but the products were pretty nice.

“Did you do that?” my brother asked.

“How I spent my summer vacation, Kirk.”

“Dammit, Martha Ann. You ARE an artist.”

He wasn’t entirely happy about that, either.

Hippy Fords of July

One of my favorite cartoons done by my brother depicts me, Aunt Martha and him in the backseat of our car. It’s supposed to be an afternoon we all — and my mom — went up on the Gold Camp Road near Colorado Springs to look at the golden aspen. In real life, my Aunt Martha was driving. She kept looking in the rearview mirror and saw my brother reading a comic book instead of looking out the window. She would then yell at him to “Look at the aspen!!!” My brother might not have put my Aunt Martha in the driver’s seat, but he accurately depicted the sense of the day and each of our personalities.

A cartoon my brother did for my Aunt Martha’s 80th birthday

Color in the Lines, Dammit

I subscribe to Taos Magazine. It’s a tourist magazine, really, which is disappointing. It showcases artists, craftspeople, galleries and restaurants. This month there is an article on coloring “outside the lines.” This is a thing I’ve noticed for a while, that there is a perceived virtue in coloring “outside the lines.” It’s a metaphor for originality and non-conformity. But…

I remember coloring books. It was not easy to learn to color inside the lines. I remember a friend — Susan Cobb — who lived up the street and she had taken this to a higher level. Once she’d colored inside the lines, she outlined the shape in question with the same color, pressing harder on the crayon. It had a lovely effect. I imitated her, but I took it a little farther. If the shape were light green, I might outline it in dark green. She, in her turn, imitated me.

It takes discipline, a well-trained hand and eye to color inside the lines. It doesn’t take much to color outside the lines. A two-year-old who doesn’t know how to hold a crayon can do it. Yeah, I hear you, “How do YOU know the two-year-old doesn’t know how to hold the crayon? He’s holding it HIS way!” I’m sorry, but you need to teach that kid when he’s ready or he’s going to be VERY frustrated that he never makes progress and that his crayons keep breaking.

“See Picasso’s work?” said my dad one day. “He couldn’t have done this,” he pointed to an abstract woman’s face that I later learned was a linoleum cut, “without being able to do this.” He showed me a very realistic portrait of a woman. “An artist needs the discipline and ability before he can make the choice. Picasso was so good, he could choose.”



Gertrude Stein by Picasso — among other things, look at that HAND.


People argue endlessly about what makes good art. I honestly believe that I know good art but really what I know for sure is what I like. But as a writer and a painter, I know that discipline is a big piece of the puzzle in coming up with something really good. My dad was completely right. Only a master can choose.