Ruminating on Inspiration

Lately I’ve been something like a professional artist. Anyway, I’ve done work requested by other people. I’ve enjoyed it very much and want to do more. It has all been work I would not have done on my own hook (I know what that phrase means but WHY?) so it’s pushed me as an artist as have the “How to Draw” videos, though I might be done with that for now. There’s only so much a person can do holding the “camera,” speaking and drawing simultaneously and off the cuff (again, I know what that phrase means but WHY?).

The thing about inspiration is that you HAVE to wait for it and you CAN’T wait for it. It’s one of THOSE things. My recent drawing of the livestock guardian dogs and the sheep was for a customer but at the same time I loved doing it. I love drawing big white dogs and the other parts of it? It was a challenge. I’ve drawn sheep before, but never in a situation where I had to represent two different breeds of sheep. I had a photo but I couldn’t just draw that. Pencil is pencil. That was another thing — I’m usually a frictionless artist (paint) and dragging a tiny graphite line across paper is different. In that drawing inspiration came in little bursts of ideas of how to solve problems in the drawing. “Put the black sheep here to emphasize the white dog in front of it,” kind of thing.

I know there are artists who plan everything out before they do anything. One of my favorite wildlife artists — Greg Beecham — uses photos, puts a grid over the photo and then paints it piece by piece into a grid he’s sketched onto his canvas, essentially doing a hundred little paintings all linked together. His work is amazing, and I love it, but his plein air work — where he’s painting outside, directly and NOT working with a plan, grids, cameras or anything — is completely different. His work reflects a mind that likes to know where it’s going.

Is that a better strategy? I don’t know. I guess it depends on the artist’s goals. All this said, I am not a professional artist, just a confirmed dilettante.

An Apple a Day

I’ve been trying to figure out what the dogs do when I’m not hanging out with them, meaning, still trying to sleep. I seem to need a lot of sleep, but that’s beside the point. Bear and Teddy normally wake up between 5 and 6, the world still in darkness, and want out. I let them out, fearing, always, that Bear, fulfilling her breed imperative by barking at real and perceived enemies, will wake up the neighbors. No one has ever complained which has been a little mysterious but don’t look a gift horse etc.

Now I know. My dogs wake up when my neighbors wake up. I took inventory of the windows all around me and saw lights everywhere. One of my neighbors told me that is when she and her husband take their walks.

Bear wouldn’t want to miss that. “Yeah, Bear usually gives us a couple of barks, saying, ‘Hi neighbors’.”

I’ve been curious, though, about some of her barks, and yesterday heading up the alley with her on the leash, I looked at the dust. What a story! Deer and raccoon had wandered through in the night, revealingly, ONLY to the furthest edge of my driveway. There was a spot where the dear had clearly turned back, scraped the alley and run. Gee, why?

But what’s the big draw??

Apples. My town has a plethora (ha ha English teacher word) of apple trees. The featured photo is a crabapple tree in front of the high school.

The beautiful old apple tree at the kids’ end of the alley was heavily laden with fruit this year. I went to find a couple of apples for the kids and saw on the ground all manner of half chewed apples — raccoon, bird, deer and who knows what else. The apple tree at City Hall often attracts black bears.

Bear in the tree near city hall last year…

I’m in total agreement with all these critters. Apples are truly wonderful. Maybe that’s why I have several paintings of them.

Created Equal? Not Hardly

Thursday morning, not too long before I woke up, I had a teaching dream even though it’s been more than six years now since I entered a classroom. In my dream, I couldn’t find my class. I was frantic. I was late.

Yesterday morning I had my second art “class” with the kids. I was amazed I could have a teaching stress dream before THAT.

The plan for the day was we’d play the Drawing Game and then make a book to hold our Art Cards and the papers where we would write about the painting we’d chosen. The book was going to be two pieces of construction paper with pockets from a third piece of construction paper inside and everything stapled together. It was a pretty simple project, I thought. I remembered doing this in second grade when we’d struggled with the very tricky life skill of folding paper length and width wise. I truly remember LEARNING this. I figured since the kids make paper airplanes, this would be OK.

The first thing they wanted to do was play The Drawing Game — a game my dad made up where a group of people take turns saying what everyone will draw — and we have to make a coherent picture out of all these random drawings. Mine’s below. I’d have stolen the kids’, but they weren’t letting go. πŸ™‚ It was the little girl’s turn first, and she wanted to draw Bear.

My Drawing Game sketch from yesterday

It’s important to note that I have no training in teaching kids. I taught college and university. I have no training in teaching art. I taught writing. I didn’t even HAVE kids, I’ve just been a kid magnet my whole life but no one knows why. I sure don’t.

I thought the best way to approach this project was to do it WITH THEM so I made one, too. The little boy followed along, made his book, had tremendous curiosity about the art cards that were turned upside down on our table. The little girl? I watched her very patiently fold five sheets of construction paper WRONG. She could SEE they had been folded wrong but couldn’t figure out WHY. She never got upset. She didn’t express any frustration. She just tried again.

I helped her see how to do it right, and showed her mine so she could see what we were trying to make. After another try, she folded the paper in the right direction but could not match up the edges.

Meanwhile my stapler wouldn’t work. The little boy set about fixing it, and succeeded.

Finally, the little girl got her book built. She began to write about her Art Card, one of Monet’s water lily paintings, and I helped her understand how to do this. I watched her write. It was extraordinarily difficult for her, not just spelling and reading, but the ACT of writing.

The little boy had finished his project, and I told him to find the country where the artist came from. I had flat maps and he wanted to know where Belgium was relative to Colorado. I said, “Dude, we need a globe.”

There was one on our table. He showed me all the countries he wanted to visit and how to play the “Globe Game” where you spin it and point at a country. His dream is a trip to Egypt to see the pyramids.

Meanwhile I’ve helped the little girl see that the name of the painting she’d chosen is Water Lilies, not Water Ladies. We learned to spell bushes.

Claude Monet Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies

When I left, besides all the stuff in my folder, I had a zip lock bag of Parmesan cheese because I’d told the little girl that Parmesan cheese was Bear’s favorite food. It was for Bear’s dinner. I promised to take a picture

The little girl is a year older than the little boy. I was stunned. I know these kids pretty well. The little girl is intelligent, but??? She has a physical malfunction that makes things difficult to do with the small muscles. and it affects her perception of spatial relationships. The simple task we were working on challenged everything.

I texted her mom when I got home saying I hoped it was OK that I challenged the little girl so intensely, that she seemed to have some serious problems with spatial relationships. Here’s what I got back:

How could anyone watch that and call it laziness or, as I suspected also could happen, “Not trying”?

I spent the rest of the day humbled, awakened to my great good fortune in the gifts with which I was born. When I walked Bear later that day, the kids were waiting with the drawing tablet I’d left behind. Bear sat so the little girl — who is only a little taller than Bear when Bear sits — could wrap her arms around Bear’s neck. You just wish you could freeze these moments of beauty, these perfect ephemeral moments.

Drawing Lesson 4 — Coloring Your Apple

I wasn’t able to resist coloring the apple I drew the other day. The challenge of making videos is satisfying my need to do something creative and productive right now… So…

It’s very revealing. You will see holes in my sweatshirt. You’ll see fingernails that have never had a manicure. I got the idea of doing this video after I came in from cleaning up the yard and didn’t think about the fact that I was wearing my oldest sweatshirt. Perfect attire for wrestling with unwelcome elm trees, though.

Here goes, I hope you enjoy it.

Drawing Lesson 3 — Blind contour drawing

Anyone who really wants to draw should draw every day. The exercise I posted yesterday with the apple is the ideal daily practice. No, you don’t always have to draw an apple. πŸ˜‰

This is a pre-drawing exercise that focuses on training your eyes and hand to work together. The purpose is to warm up your drawing muscles, all of them.

If you’re doing these exercises, I’d love to see your drawings.

One thing that’s happening on this end, I’m getting better at making videos and using iMovie video editor.

Here’s the apple exercise if you missed it.

Tomorrow I might go into color. πŸ™‚ Thanks for watching.

Drawing Lesson 2 — Another Informal Drawing Lesson

For this lesson you need an apple, a pencil and a ContΓ© crayon (or charcoal, chalk or a crayon). I apologize for the jumping around of the visual and the fact that the camera isn’t always “looking” at something. It was challenging for me to hold the phone, look at the subject (an apple) and show you my work. Maybe I’ll get better at it. πŸ˜€

One Who Loves

Yesterday I posted the written instructions I have given my two adult art students for “How to Draw.” Then I got the idea of making videos for art lessons.

If I were a great artist, a successful artist, I guess I’d be living somewhere other than in the back of beyond, but who knows? I’m not a great artist and certainly not a successful artist but a long time ago I realized how absurd a dream that is. Does doing good work lead automatically to success in ANY field? No. And art? Life is hard. Work is hard. Some things in our lives just SHOULDN’T be.

For a long time I didn’t draw and I didn’t paint. Well, I drew in my journals, “The Examined Life”. It wasn’t until 2012 when my stepson and his wife gave me brushes and a canvas that I thought of trying oil painting again. I hadn’t painted in oils since high school when I did a large oil painting and my art teacher told me I had no talent and more or less said he wasn’t going to teach me any more. I’m not sure he ever taught me which might be a salient point but WHATEV’.

It was late fall and rainy in San Diego County when I resolved to give it a shot. I had some oil paints that had belonged to friends. I took a photo of the cattle across the street and decided to try something I’d never done before.

Many Renaissance painters painted from dark to light, from dark, dark, dark brown or black, to light. My brother always said my paintings had no “depth” so I decided to start by painting my little canvas (11 x 14) with black Gesso. It was an incredible experience pulling a painting out of the darkness and I LOVED the painting even though, initially, one of the cows only had three legs (my bad). After that, I went for it. I bought paints and surfaces on which to paint.

I gave the three legged cow a fourth leg in the meantime

I painted small paintings — 5 x 7 — because, in my mind, I was in school. I joined the local art guild and showed my work twice a year. I kept painting. It got me through some awful times, always a source of joy, discovery, distraction. The more I painted, the more I learned about painting, paints and colors.

It meant so much to me because in my “real” (ha ha) life I was teaching EVERYONE. I could go into my shed, paint and the whole stupid idiot expensive difficult outside world disappeared. And then, as it happened, in 2013, I got two paintings in juried shows. The one below was in a juried show put on by the San Diego Art Museum Artists Guild.

The World is Out There

How did it come into being? Well, I’d been asked by my step-daughter-in-law to paint a scene of New York. In that scene the word “Stop” was painted on the street. I went to work and realized that the scene wanted to be a water color, not an oil. I put this panel away and did a water color that worked pretty well. Then I got a flyer from a fellow artist advertising her work in a gallery in Kansas. In that flyer was a photo of this sofa. I have always been amazed by how the old masters painted fabrics and wondered if I could paint velvet so I pulled out that “ruined” panel and painted the sofa. I let the sofa dry and put the panel away, but the whole panel was starting to intrigue me… I painted a lot of things on this panel that I cleared off with solvent before I painted this. I liked this panel a lot because it was interesting and mysterious.

Nothing I painted during this time was 100% successful (to me) but every one of those paintings (and those I do now) was 100% satisfying as an experience. I realized through this that the most important thing about art — for me — is its power to inspire me to keep doing it.

Lots of people stop because they’re not satisfied with their work. For me that’s a reason to keep doing the work. My great hero, Goethe, went to Italy in 1786. He was suffering a broken heart, inner turmoil, a personal crisis. One of the things he was looking for in Italy was inspiration.

In those days without cameras people had to draw their own souvenirs or hire a professional artist to do that for them. Goethe had a lot of talent as a visual artist and was torn about maybe, by writing, he’d gone in the wrong direction. He drew everything along his way as he had whenever he traveled. I have a little book of many of the ink and wash drawings he did on his journeys.

Somewhere on his Italian journey he decided he wasn’t good enough and he hired an artist to travel around with him. It seems that was the end of creating visual art for Goethe. If I could talk to him, I’d ask him about that. Like me, one of Goethe’s reasons for going to Italy was to look at paintings. Maybe he got daunted and, as Hemingway wrote, one should never get daunted. The featured photo is of one of Goethe’s ink wash sketches of a scene in Italy.

In imitation of Goethe, in 2004, in Giardino Giusti in Verona (which Goethe also drew) I drew this. It’s not that easy to keep a good record of what you see by drawing it.

My goal with my “students” is simply to inspire them to try without worrying about failing. Our world is so concerned with perfection and success that failure is undervalued. In the process of learning to paint or draw, there’s a lot of failure, but those failures are more useful than the things we “get right.”

There is a painting (sold long ago) that started out a thing of real beauty. I destroyed it (IMO) by forcing my idea of what it should be onto it. Funny thing, I have no photos of it once it was “finished,” but I have photos of it while it was still in the process of being painted, before I wrecked it. It was important to me to retain THAT moment, not the failed moment. Why? Because this painting taught me that it’s not all up to me. Creating the painting or drawing I WANT sometimes means stepping back and seeing what the painting or drawing itself wants to be. Anyone who tries is 100% sure to fail. The point is it doesn’t matter. Failure is — in art — the best teacher.

Descanso Valley, CA

To help my students, I made a couple of very rough videos yesterday. I’ve put the drawing video at the bottom of this post. It seems to have worked with one of them, so that’s cool. It’s purpose is not to give any technical instruction, just maybe to inspire enthusiasm to try. Inspiration in instruction is often underrated because it cannot be measured or controlled, but I think, in art, it’s important. Not all inspiration leads to great masterpieces, but it always provides the energy to try.

For me, painting is like skiing. I was never — and will never be — a great skier but no one has more fun. The word “amateur” means, “One who loves.” I’m proud to be one.