More than Just Brushes

I have a lot of paintbrushes. I’ve had the four in the featured photo since I was in grad school. Two of them were payment for work I did for the YWCA of Denver. I was paid in art supplies, and I still think that was a good deal. I did silk-screened posters, illustrations for brochures and even some watercolor art posters. I bought the other two during the time I was painting with gouache (1980/81), which led to a one person show at Cafe Nepenthes (RIP), a coffee house on Market Street in Denver.

I bought six beautiful brushes in Switzerland in 1997. In the process of cleaning the art room, I took them out of their wooden box and put them in this coffee can for active duty because, as I told them, “Someday is here.” I used one on my most recent oil painting. I am sure there are brushes in my collection I will never use.

Lavazza Coffee Can and my favorite bouquet

Some of my brushes were given to me by artists who couldn’t paint any more. My friend Michael lost his sight to macular degeneration and gave me some of his brushes for a Christmas present. Sally, a short time from the end of her life’s journey, knew in her soul she was done painting. When she handed her brushes to me, I remembered her retirement party more than twenty years earlier when those brushes had been a gift to her from our school.

Sally’s Brushes

Paintbrushes represent potential. When they gave me their brushes, I felt as if my friends were deeding to me their potential.

My friends’ brushes are not always responsive to me. Maybe they’re waiting for their REAL master or they’ve been worn in the direction in which their previous owners painted.

One of my brushes wears the traces of my brother. Once, in the mid-1990s, I was visiting him and his ex-wife. I was in my painted tables phase at the time. My brother picked up one of my brushes and lectured me on brush care. He then trimmed the bristles so the brush would work better.

The brush my brother trimmed

My brother could be pretty strident giving an art lecture (he thought he knew everything and he really did know a lot) but brush care is critical and, probably, also, kind of personal. It depends mostly on what medium an artist works in. A thin water-based medium, like water color or gouache, is a soap and water thing. But acrylic — which washes out with soap and water — can cling to the base of the bristles near the ferule and wreck the brush. That’s what my brother’s lecture was about. Oil paints are (obviously) not water soluble so a dip in solvent (I use Gamblin’s odor free mineral spirits, Gamsol) followed by a soap and water wash works well for me. I use The Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver. I then let my brushes air dry upside down so nothing clings to the base of the bristles before I put them back in the bouquet.

I have brushes with which to paint fresco. I went to fresco school in LA some fifteen years ago, and I hope that sometime down the road — maybe this summer — I’ll paint some small frescoes on the backs of the porcelain tiles in my garage, left over from the remodel they did before I moved in. I just takes a lot of space to paint fresco — it’s messy.

Some women get their hair done, or get a mani-pedi or a massage when they’re down. I guess I buy new paintbrushes. Last March, before my hip surgery, I bought a beautiful brush made of mongoose hair. Still, I use those four old brushes the most.

I Could go ON and ON and ON but…

Most of them are just rocks and dirt that people discovered ages ago they could use to paint with. Cave paintings like this one from Argentina have been found wherever there is ochre clay clinging to the rocks, usually near limestone caves. Limestone + water + pigment = fresco. To get these amazing paintings, all they had to do was pulverize some ochre, put it in a hollow reed, wet the wall of the cave, put a hand up and blow through the reed.

Cueva de los Manos, Argentina. Red, brown and white ochre.

Ochre is common throughout the world. I saw brilliant green and gold ochre outside Verona (Verona green ❤ ). I’ve had the chance a few times to go to the Paint Mines not far from Colorado Springs. It’s a spot where Indians dug for face paint, but the white clay there is also good for pottery.

Artists still use these ancient pigments. We draw and even paint with charcoal and lamp black. All of our “earth colors” are really earth colors.

Under the boot and on the toe you can see the color of the pink rock from the Paint Mines that’s in the featured photo.

Other colors were harder to come up with long ago. Red was extremely challenging to produce, and some shades were deadly poisonous. A beautiful non-toxic red — carmine — could be derived from the Cochineal beetle which is found in South America. Carmine made its way to Europe in the 16th century. It was so valuable that the Spanish — who had cornered the resource, obviously — kept its source a secret until the 18th century. The most common red was ferrous oxide (rust). Some very rare and expensive colors are now made synthetically. Artists have benefitted through “better living through chemistry,”

The most beautiful blue came from this rock:

Raw Lapis Lazuli
Padua, Baptistry of the Cathedral, Giusto de Menabuoi

Ultramarine blue was so rare and expensive, its production (obviously) not easy, that for a while it was worth more than gold. For a long time, it was used only on Jesus’ robes. It is Ultramarine Blue — “ultra marine” — across the sea. It is made from Lapis Lazuli and came from Afghanistan to Europe on any of the arduous and dangerous trade routes.

A tube of Ultramarine Blue made from Lapis I bought last year before my hip surgery, and my ultramarine blue watercolor pencil

These days, many of the colors we use are synthetically derived — including ultramarine blue. Paints are less poisonous. Artists’ favorite white, lead white, became illegal in the 19th century and now there are a few substitutes. It’s thought Van Gogh went nuts from eating his cadmium yellow paint in fits of sunflower driven ecstasy.

Like any painter — have favorite brands. For watercolor, obviously, I love Caran d’Ache. I usually use pencils, but I also use watercolor crayons and paints from their traditional box, too.

My favorite oil painting brand is Gamblin Oil Paint. They are made in Portland, Oregon, in a small company, Gamblin Artist’s Colors. The founder, Robert Gamblin, is, among other things, an art restorer who builds traditional pigments, which, of course, I love. One of the main aims of the company is the production of safer paints and solvents. The oil colors and various media are beautiful, easy to use and responsive to my way of painting. The solvents are not only less toxic but also less stinky which is good because the place where I paint has no ventilation other than the doorway to the kitchen.

Well, as I said, I could go on and on and on…


I keep my paints in a jewelry box made by my Uncle Hank.

Quotidian Update 43.2.a

Well, that break didn’t last long. It appears my NOT writing a daily blog while drinking my coffee in the morning disturbs the balance of life on Planet Martha. I get it. It corresponds with the rawhide pencil moment of my dogs’ lives, and it’s part of Dusty’s morning coffee (cup). Dogs are creatures of habit, but it might go deeper. I think it might be ritual.

Yesterday I cleaned out the art-room/studio/play room and assessed my art supplies. I guess during the working years I amassed supplies ahead of “someday.” Someday is now. I’m going to have to start manufacturing artwork and not watercolors on paper that take up no space and use almost no materials. I have to get into the oil paints and start turning out Elvis portraits. Tout suite!

The big news (in two days, you can’t expect a lot) is that I got my tax refund and paid for my skis. For the last several days, while the local mountains have been dumped on, we’ve had a melt. I was out there with Bear day before yesterday. The tracks looked OK, but we had more warm temps yesterday. The cross-country skiing is good up at Wolf Creek, the local ski area, but I don’t have anyone to go with and since it’s off to the side of the mountain, in the woods, and not patrolled. I don’t feel so good about going by myself.

In political news, I watched part of the State of the Union. What I do not understand is WHY that man doesn’t care about or respond to the fact that more than half the people in this country despise (fear? loathe?) him. He doesn’t seem to recognize that there’s a legitimate parallel America doing its best to function beside his bizarro America. He doesn’t get that he’s (ostensibly) the leader of THAT America, too, and owes them (us) a debt of responsibility.

As I looked at the sea of representatives from all over the country I thought that one side represents the future and the other the past. I can’t say I like the face of either side, and, even more significant, I am sad that there are “sides.” I’m tired of the ignorance. Socialism and Freedom are not opposites, for example.

OH well…

In other news (cheerier) on my dog walk yesterday, I found this note on the sidewalk. It had white ribbon and had been attached to a scarf that had been tied around a slumbering flowering crab apple tree.

I have to go paint something.

Just a Little Watercolor

Mt. Blanca from Rio Grande Wildlife Area, Watercolor on Paper

I think the image on this blog is LARGER than the picture in real life! Anyway, my first real painting in 3 years. I’d forgotten how painting something you love involves the lover’s perspective, whether you will or not. This has red willows, patches of snow, golden fall grass, cottonwood trees, a snowy mountain and a very well-loved trail. 🙂

For the Birds

When I’m not working on a novel, I have had a project, a piece of “creative nonfiction” though when I started it in 1978 or so I don’t think the term existed. It’s autobiographical fiction or fictionalized autobiography or autobiography about learning to writer fiction. Maybe it — like one of the protagonists — defies labels. 

It’s a strange piece. The speaker (it’s a first person story) is at that moment in life where she doesn’t know what to do, who she is. She has a lot of abilities but no direction. She’s poised for flight but doesn’t know if she has wings.

So I ended up titling it “Fledging.” It’s had several titles in its long evolution, but from this promontory, looking at it from the distance of forty years and knowing how the stories turned out, I can see what she was doing. And writing this book was part of her attempt to take wing. Who and what was she? Painter? Writer? World-traveler? Wife? No clue…

I don’t think it’ll ever be for sale. Maybe it’s just a thing I had to finish for myself. It’s got lots of bad writing — which makes sense because it’s about a person learning to write and only starting to discover her voice and understand the importance of refining skills.

I wrote it with a typewriter, retyped it innumerable times on my original Smith/Corona and then on my Smith/Corona correcting typewriter (replete with a small memory card), retyped it on my Amiga and then again on my Mac Classic and again on my MacBook Pro. This one? The one before? The one before that? I don’t know. 

Anyway, I love it and I’m proud of it — and her. That girl survived, endured and kept writing thanks to her plasticity and resilience. If she hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here in Heaven on this gorgeous blue and powdered-sugar snow day.

Cool Rocks

I never got the idea of “jewels.” What made the diamond on my mother’s finger more beautiful or valuable than any other rock? Even when it was explained to me, it made no sense. To me it always seemed a variation on ravens picking up shiny things for their nests — a cool thing that ravens do, but people? 

I just don’t get it. 

In the passage of time, I inherited my mom’s diamonds. They are in a box with a couple of other treasures and I think it’s interesting what those treasures are. There is my dad’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Bible my grandma gave me when I was six and able to read, and my mom’s diamonds, metaphors for all three.

But I have some jewels… 

Dendrite rock from Mission Trails Regional Park I found hiking with Truffle and Molly
Moccasin last I found in Montana out rock hunting with my mom. It’s the right size for a child’s moccasin and it was looking up at me just like this from the plowed field by the Little Bighorn. 🙂 ❤
Raw Lapis Lazuli, the stone from which Ultramarine Blue was originally made. It’s my Martin of Gfenn rock.
Rocks (clay) from the Paint Mines in Calhan, Colorado. Very nice pigment stones! 

I can’t wear any of these, but I have one rock treasure that I can wear. It was given to me by a Chinese student years and years ago, soon after I returned to the US from China. I complimented her on her jade pendant, and she took it off her neck and gave it to me. It was embarrassing. I had nothing of equal value to give her, and it’s a very precious thing. I love it. The old-style Chinese writing on the back says, “Bamboo whispers peace.”

You Can’t Handle the Past

I write historical fiction so the words “the past” is not just my own past (which seems fictional a lot of the time) but a lot of peoples’ pasts. Mostly I don’t think we know that much about it. Even our own.

The other night I was talking on the phone with an old friend and he shared a memory with me of a time that I don’t remember and don’t think happened. I could see the conversation going into that place where a lot of conversations go, so I just said. “Interesting. I don’t remember that.” He started justifying his memory of events, and I just let him.

Who knows?

What stands out in the memory of person A might not in the memory of person B — for a lot of reasons. In this case, if this event he remembered so vividly DID happen, it would have been crowded out of my memory by things that happened afterward — my mom being hospitalized, having to fly to Montana, fearing I’d gotten scabies from a dog we tried to rescue, etc. etc. a whole litany of chaos that included both the dishwasher and washing machine breaking, my purse stolen and my car breaking down. Yep. All in one evening. Those things didn’t happen to my friend or involve him directly. Why WOULD he remember them? He doesn’t.

History is propaganda. I saw that most clearly when I was researching the way lepers were treated in the middle ages. There was a clear discrepancy between what the literature of the era said and what modern historians said. All this was being examined at the time by paleo-historians who were digging up graveyards in what were regarded (by modern historians) as “leper colonies.” What they found supported the literature of the time and went against the whole pariah myth that — it turns out — was a post plague thing and propagated by Sir Walter Scott hundreds of years later.  The marginalized leper was not a medieval thing and medieval doctors diagnosed leprosy accurately.

Then there is the noxious historical period known as the Renaissance. I don’t think there was any Renaissance at all. A sixteenth century Italian propagandist and second-rate painter, Giorgio Vasari, coined the term to describe his OWN period in history. Yeah, there was a lot of beautiful work done at this time, but it was because the church was 1) rich and 2) threatened by the Reformation. All that beautiful painting and stuff? Big character posters.

Then there’s the floating point of historical periods. Giotto — because people in some era future to his own liked his work — has been included in the Renaissance because his paintings are not “primitive and medieval.” This is (to Renaissance propagandists) clearly an indication that the art of painting was progressing, moving toward Michelangelo et. al. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone that Giotto lived and worked in a century — the fourteenth century — that these same historians have included in the “Dark Ages.” Fuck them. It pisses me off every time I think of it. Giotto’s work was loved and sought in his own era. They have a right to it — as long as we’re going to arbitrarily assign eras to history.

And WHY did medieval painting cling to the Byzantine model so long? Was it REALLY because medieval artists couldn’t paint “better” than that? No. It was because they believed that the Holy Family should not be depicted as ordinary human beings.


Berlinghiero Madonna and Child, 13th century

There’s a lot of medieval painting that isn’t of the Holy Family, and a lot to be learned by looking at it. Just a couple of very random examples, 12th and 13th century secular paintings:


Anyway, you can see the “past” is kind of a “hot button” topic for me. I could rant all day on how the Reformation ruined the color and beauty of the Middle Ages by stripping the churches, making a cult out of the color black and destroying paintings, but I won’t. Just remember when you think of the past — even your own past — you might be editorializing without even knowing it.

Featured image: The Massacre of the Innocents by Giotto di Bondone, fresco at Assisi

Caran d’Ache

When I moved here four years ago I followed the instructions of every moving company and put my treasures in the car I drove myself. My treasures were Lily, Dusty, and Mindy (dogs), and my art supplies. I especially treasure two sets of Caran d’Ache materials — watercolor pencils and Conte crayons. I know that never in my life would I be able to replace the sets. I don’t use them. I work with a smaller set (40) and I replace each pencil as it wears down. These colors are made in Switzerland.

A long time ago I had a Swiss family. It’s a long story — pretty interesting one — but I’m not telling it here. For a few years, I spent most Christmases in Zürich with them. Often, I was given cash as a present, and one year I went to the Glatt (big shopping center in Wallisellen) and bought a giant sent of watercolor pencils. One year I wasn’t able to go to Zürich, and when my friend returned to California from time with his parents, he gave me my Christmas presents. One was the set of Conte crayons.

I have a set of Caran d’Ache gouache that I used once in a while and a set of oil pastels I’ve never used. So far they haven’t fit my technique.

For me these colors are wonderful in themselves and in the way they connect me to a time in my life that was these colors.

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