How to Make Great Art

Blog-new-painting-Apr2Painting in progress April 2, 2016

Each new artwork starts with possibility. Just outside the edge of seeing, you see. So you stretch further than you can reach. Something that doesn’t exist now might in the future, if you can create it. You begin.

Not too long after, it seems as though you’ve got it. “I know where I’m going,” you think. This is working out just the way you wanted. It won’t take long. This one will be perfect.

And then, it isn’t. You’ve no idea what happened. You’ve wrecked something that was beautiful and you don’t even know how. Probably you can’t finish this one. It’s so wrong, what would be the point?

So you’re back to possibility. To know if possibility can become real you must keep going. It’s only just out of reach.

And this is where great art happens. Oh, not with this one. This one is almost finished. Your part is just to take it there.

It’s the next one. Something that doesn’t exist now might in the future. You must stretch to find out.

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This blog is a series of posts from one artist’s life. To receive updates, with stories from the artist’s studio and beautiful images, plus a free printable postcard of one of my most recent paintings, just put your email in the box on the right. Your email address will never be shared.

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Is Your Life Artistic Enough?

Blog-studio-eveningA good enough artistic life?

There’s are people falling all over themselves to say what an artist’s life is. Subtle or sledgehammer, the wish to define you is strong. I heard a new one this weekend, on a podcast I sometimes listen to in the studio. The host identified an artist, then said, “She has a very artistic life.”

Of course, I wanted to see it. Oh good, I thought. I can find out what one of those is and maybe I can have one too. So I checked the artist out.

This artist lives in a house that’s purple on the outside and has an interior painted every colour of the rainbow. There are winged creatures and inspirational sayings on every surface, including in the garden. Her drawings are bright and whimsical and she turns them into colouring books, inspiration cards, and journals. These, plus her workshops, help other women find their own personal creative magic spark. Her testimonials are loving.

According to this artist’s website, “She works in a rush of artistic energy, painting not only on paper and canvas, but on whatever object falls beneath her gaze. She feasts on gorgeous bright colours and glitter and sunshine and joy, producing delightfully playful images filled with naivete and charm, poignant meaningful observations, wild patterns and colours. [Her] art and life have become inseparable, her whole home has become an example of her creative energy.”

This is so far from my life that if this is what an artistic life is, I might as well quit now. My house is too ordinary. When I had the kitchen re-done a couple of years ago, I made sure it came out white. Nothing I make is whimsical. And while there is art on the walls, but most of it was made by other people. Now I know better – I should have painted everything  myself. Like most artists, I balance art time with making a living time and contributing to my community time and time for making food and keeping the house and getting in supplies and taking back library books and being with friends and family. As far working in a rush of artistic energy goes, there are days when I have hardly any energy at all.

Sometimes we know it’s nonsense. There is no “very artistic life”. If you are an artist, you have the artistic life you have. But nonetheless, in addition to balancing the making of art and the making of life, most artists also balance a constant fear that we’re not making enough, doing enough, changing enough, getting enough recognition, or being good enough at any of it. Some of us stop being artists because the balance fails.

So do yourself this one favour. Don’t compare. There’s a phrase: “Comparing your inside with someone else’s outside.” I’d add, especially as promoted on websites. There’s always another story. Maybe the story truly is that this artist’s art and life have become inseparable. Maybe the story is that the purple house needs painting and she’d really like to get rid of all that whimsy and have something calm but sales of the inspiration haven’t been so good lately and she’s not sure she can pay for her website hosting, never mind buy the exterior latex needed to start over.

I don’t know. None of us do. But if you have the choice of taking to heart someone else’s version of what a life should be like or trusting to your own, I’m pretty sure trust will do more good in the long run.

How are you trusting in your artistic life?

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This blog is a series of posts from one artist’s life. To receive updates, with stories from the artist’s studio and beautiful images, plus a free printable postcard of one of my most recent paintings, just put your email in the box on the right. Your email address will never be shared.

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Acceptance

Blog-March-Daffodils-webMarch daffodils

It’s Easter and the daffodils are blooming. But where I am they’re blooming only indoors. Outside, the air is cold, a sharp wind blows from the northwest, and the sky is grey, heavy with rain that won’t fall. Or snow, that might.

Luckily, I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, and to me this is exactly what Easter looks like.

Edmonton is Alberta’s capital city. When I lived there its slogan was Gateway to the North. But lying as it does at latitude 53, Edmonton is the north. In the middle of December, the sun rises at 8:30 and sets at 4:15. In January the average daily high temperature is -7C/19F with lows of -16C/3F. Even by March, the average daily high is only +2C/36F. All this dark and cold means that by Easter, spring is just thinking about getting started.

And even in those years when spring thought about showing up earlier, there seemed to be something about the Easter date itself that made weather turn nasty. Something about the full moon occurring after the spring equinox. That bright moon seemed to make the night skies frozen and the daytimes leaden. Every year, there we’d be, with a new Easter dress, and every year, there we’d be, in snow. Somewhere in books children found Easter eggs on rolled green lawns. It didn’t happen to anyone I knew.

You get to expect what you know. Of Easter, I never expect anything else. Grey sky? Check? Threat of snow? Got it. Cold wind whistling around your ears, meaning your winter hat and mitts are still in active service? You betcha.

There can be peace in not fighting what is there. For now, my daffodils are happy on the windowsill.

May peace be with you. And happy Easter!

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5 Top Tips for Easy Getting Started Painting in Oils

Blog-taboretNot a fancy setup

A lot of artists want to start painting in oils, but they worry that it will be complicated. Not only does it not have to be scary, it can be easy to get started with. Here are five ways to make it easier.

You don’t need all those colours.
Most manufacturers of artists’ oil colours make up to 100 or more different colours available. They are all lovely, and it can feel utterly overwhelming as you try to decide which ones you’ll need. For most paintings, I use about five. Cadmium yellow deep, cadmium red deep, ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, titanium white. With these basics I can mix most colours I’ll want. (The burnt sienna is my workhorse. It can make any colour look like you took it right from nature.) On grand occasions I might add cadmium yellow for a sunnier yellow, quinacridone red for a softer and brighter red, pthalo blue to turn a painted sky warmer, and dioxazine purple for cooling off anything. I don’t actually need to, but an artist doesn’t want to get too habitual. (That’s a joke. I’m very habitual.)

You do need good paint.
It can be tempting, when you first start out, to try saving money on paint. This is false economy. The oil colours called Artists’ Oil Colours have more pigment in them. Your mixed colours will be truer and your paints will go further. Student Oil Colours have more oil, more filler, and less pigment. You’ll use them up more quickly and you won’t find them as easy to mix.

You don’t need a fancy set-up.
I use a flat-pack microwave cart for a painting table. It’s got casters! And a stainless steel top and a drawer and two shelves. My palette is a nice big piece of cardboard that I cover with tinfoil whenever I want a new surface. I actually mix paint on throwaway paper palettes then transfer it to the tinfoiled cardboard because I like a clean look. Ordinary plastic wrap over the mixed paint colours when I’m done for the day helps them stay malleable for a week or more. One palette knife for mixing and paper towels for wiping off the knife and I’m ready to go.

You do need good brushes.
I watched a video of someone transferring a photo print to a canvas using gel medium which she painted onto the canvas with a really cheap brush. Watching her struggle against her tools caused me almost physical pain. Her brush bent in all the wrong places, wouldn’t take any pressure, and left paint in lumps on her canvas. Do not try this at home! A 1/2 inch flat brush can can cost anywhere from $4.00 to $20.00 and up. Plan to spend about $12.00. A hog’s bristle brush will allow the application of paint in either a smooth or textured surface and let you lay one colour over another without displacing the initial colour, depending on the angle at which you take the brush to the painting surface. A synthetic brush is great for blending right on the painting. If you buy one good brush instead of a dozen cheapies, you’ll do yourself a favour.

Take your painting surface seriously.
Stretched canvas, prepared panels, paper with a non-absorbent surface – all good for creating different appearances. The only surface I don’t recommend is canvas board. It’s made with inexpensive canvas glued onto inexpensive cardboard and it will fight your colour application and eventually warp. I also don’t like prepared boards that are made to look like canvas. Artificial surfaces never give as good a result as the genuine article. Just like life.

And now you’re ready to go. Questions? Just ask.

And oh – enjoy!

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This blog is a series of posts from one artist’s life. To receive updates, with stories from the artist’s studio and beautiful images, plus a free printable postcard of one of my most recent paintings, just put your email in the box on the right. Your email address will never be shared.

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How Have You Designed Your Artist’s Life?

Val-Marie-spur-webVal Marie in the middle of nowhere

On Wednesday I got up in the morning and fed the cat. Then I went outside to add seed to the bird feeders and back into the house to head for the shower. Much later that day, I found the door was unlocked. This means I had left it that way when I came in from feeding the birds. Shower and all.

Usually I’m more careful. I grew up in a city where I learned from the age of childhood to lock from the inside as I walked through the doorway, and in my last location, for a period of 24 years, I could get positively obsessive about checking at night to be sure I hadn’t forgotten. And not without reason. My home was broken into once, when I wasn’t there, and sometimes things happened to people whose homes were broken into when they were there. You couldn’t be too careful.

But here, in the middle of nowhere, many people in and around this tiny village still just don’t bother.

Which is a long way from any way I ever thought I would live.

When I left the city to move here, to the edge of Grasslands National Park, I’d made my home in the same house, in a growing and supportive artistic community, for 24 years. I was well settled there. I had a good job, lots of friends, favourite restaurants and coffee bars and places to shop, and a comfortable routine. All I didn’t have was the time and energy to paint. Things weren’t always like this. When I moved to that city, it was a small, inexpensive, and easy-to-cope-with place. There were lots of artists, and artists could thrive there. We could manage on small jobs and enjoy the work we were put on Earth to do. But 24 years later, the city was bigger and a lot more costly. It was taking me more and more hours every week to earn my living. My art career had all but disappeared. I began to think I needed either to decide I was going to be an artist or decide to stop trying. Trying and failing over and over again hurt too much. Enter Val Marie.

I’d been visiting the area since 2001 when I first came on a self-directed artist’s retreat. I’d never felt at home in a landscape so quickly. In 2003 my friend the painter Catherine Macaulay moved to an acreage just outside the village, so I had a reason to come back two or three times a year and a place to stay when I did. I began to love the way it looks here, to make other friends, and to understand the way the place works. In 2007, my old city had a housing boom, and my house there was suddenly worth real money. A house in Val Marie doesn’t cost nearly as much, and in 2008 one became available, one that I, not the bank, would own. I decided to stop trying and failing to be an artist, and after buying the local house, and renovating, showing, and finally selling the one in Saskatoon, I was here. In a community where people don’t lock doors.

I’ve never looked back. It isn’t that this is perfect. Val Marie is isolated, and doctors and dentists and banks are 120 km/85 mi away over some not very good roads. The village streets are icy in winter and the air is roasting in summer. I’ve discovered that taking yourself out of the action in the city can have the effect of, well, taking you out of the action. Though having discovered it, I’m taking steps to work around it. As I take steps to work around the distance and the ice and the heat.

But I remember the day when the cats and I drove away from our old house for the last time, and I stopped for a coffee-to-go in a 2000-resident town about 115 km/70 mi along. As I left the cats in the car for a few minutes, I whispered, “I’ll be right back. You’ll be fine. We’re safe now.”

We are. Unlocked doors, time to paint, artist’s life.

How are you safe in your artist’s life? Physically, metaphorically, artistically? How have you designed it so it works?

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This blog is a series of posts from one artist’s life. To receive updates, with stories from the artist’s studio and beautiful images, plus a free printable postcard of one of my most recent paintings, just put your email in the box on the right. Your email address will never be shared.

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The Ocean at the Other Side of the Hill

GNP-Grassy-Hills-Distant-Butte-rev-web“Grassy Hills Distant Butte, Grasslands National Park” by Laureen Marchand (5″ x 7″, oil/board)

The wind has been blowing for three days. This isn’t just a light breeze. Today the wind is reported at 70km/45mph. In Val Marie, even though my house is in the village and relatively protected, the wind sounds like traffic on a superhighway. Walking into that would be like walking into a train. All the willing creativity I can muster isn’t going to get me outdoors today.

It makes me think of Ireland. Thirteen years ago I lived for a winter in the West of that country,where I learned about the Beaufort Scale of wind speed. I had rented a cottage near the sea in western Ireland for three months, to paint, make new friends if I could and try a different life for awhile. The experiment was a resounding success. I credit it with my discovery of the joys of rural life and my eventual arrival in this beautiful Saskatchewan Southwest.

But oh, the wind. It blew all the time. There are warnings of gales and strong gales on all Irish coastal waters and on the Irish sea. That was the Irish weather forecast, repeated on the radio hourly. Gales and strong gales are terms from the Beaufort Scale, developed in 1805 to relate wind speed to its effects on ships at sea and still used wherever ocean defines weather. A gale is wind up to 74 kilometers per hour; a strong gale is up to 88 kilometers per hour. The Scale says that at gale force, the ocean shows moderately high waves with breaking crests. On land, some twigs are broken from trees, cars veer on roads and progress on foot is seriously impeded. At strong gale force, there are high waves whose crests sometimes roll over and large amounts of airborne spray may begin to reduce visibility. On land, branches break off trees and some small trees blow over.

Saskatchewan being landlocked, we don’t usually measure wind using the Beaufort Scale. But in the winds these days I think I can hear the roaring sea. I think the ocean has moved in, somewhere the other side of the hills.

I’ve always said that in Grasslands National Park there’s a place where the ocean should be. It looks just like western Ireland. You could make your way up and over the hills, and you’d expect to come down on the other side and meet the tide.

Next time the wind goes down, I’ll go there and look for seaweed.

There are warnings of gales and strong gales on all Saskatchewan ranchlands and on the Grasslands sea.

(The title for this post was inspired by a wonderful fantasy novel by international award-winning writer Neil Gaiman called The Ocean at the End of the Lane. You should read it.)

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This blog is a series of posts from one artist’s life. To receive updates, with stories from the artist’s studio and beautiful images, plus a free printable postcard of one of my most recent paintings, just put your email in the box on the right. Your email address will never be shared.

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Creativity Working For You

March-Hay-webAbandoned bales in March

I need some outside time and I’m not getting it. The wind has been howling for the last two days. 60km/37mi per hour yesterday and 35km/20mi per hour today. Walking out there is like walking straight against a moving car. I like walking in the wind about as well as I like walking on ice. Which is to say, not at all. So it’s far too easy for me to talk myself out of trying.

But hey, I’m supposed to be a creative person. Is there a way I can let my creativity work for me, finding a way into movement, instead of against me, finding excuses why I can’t go?

Yes and No argue all day. I can’t do that! How can I do that? Not at all! Not even maybe?

In the end, “maybe” wins. I creatively pull on a fleece jacket, a denim jacket and a down vest over the t-shirt and turtleneck I’m already wearing, and add my winter hat and mitts. And I set out, head down. I’ll aim for 20 minutes. I’ll try.

The wind is steady and strong. The road feels uphill, though it isn’t. So I offer myself the grace of going slowly. This isn’t supposed to be get fit or die. This is creativity.

And in the end, creativity wins. It usually does, if you let it. I stop for cows in their pasture, and hills in the distance. And I wander. Imagine how long I’ve been walking this road and never stepped off it. There’s a dirt-bike track through the grass. There’s an ancient truck, with the box and cab permanently separated by rust. There’s an abandoned shack and some hay bales, abandoned more recently. With five layers of clothing and the hat and mitts, even the wind is okay. And with the grace of turning back – wind is always less when you turn back – “maybe” becomes “possible” after all.

I have the hay bales to prove it.

How can you let your creativity create possible for you?

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This blog is a series of posts from one artist’s life. To receive updates, with stories from the artist’s studio and beautiful images, plus a free printable postcard of one of my most recent paintings, just put your email in the box on the right. Your email address will never be shared.

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How Not to Be Afraid of Painting in Oils

Blog-New-painting-2-March-webNew painting in progress (oil/board, detail)

As an artist and teacher I often hear from other artists who would like to try painting in oils but are afraid to. Artists’ oil paint gets a bad rap. Maybe it’s an idea we have about the name.”Oil paint” is used on woodwork and baseboards, except many paint manufacturers have phased it out because it contains VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency warns may have adverse health effects. “Oil paint” is on airline banned-substance lists because of its extreme flammability. “Oil paint” needs to be thinned and cleaned with poisonous solvents and it’s an all-round baddy.

Or maybe it’s an idea we have about tradition. Oil paint is for masters only and therefore impossible for artists who aren’t masters, which is almost everybody. It’s slow to dry, which means you have to wait between the application of layers. It has too many rules.

The thing is, none of this is true. Or it doesn’t have to be. If you’re an artist who has been afraid of trying this beautiful medium, read on.

First, let’s deal with the name. From now on, you can forget about “oil paints”. The term you want is “artists oil colours”. “Oil paints” are solvent-borne, with fillers, liquid, and possibly other additives. They have a “flash point” (temperature at which they catch fire) of under 60C/140F, which is low. They usually come in tins and are liquid. And you’re right, airlines don’t want them.

Artists’ oil colours, on the other hand, are made of pigment in vegetable oil. It’s true that that some pigments may be toxic if ingested in large quantities, and oily rags and paper should always be disposed of safely. Just as in the rest of life. But as far as the oil goes, Winsor & Newton uses linseed oil and/or safflower oil. Gamblin uses linseed oil. M. Graham uses walnut oil, Holbein linseed or poppy, Sennelier safflower, and so on. You may still be able to find oil colours with some turpentine in them, but you don’t need to buy them.

And thinning and cleaning? The good news is that you don’t really need to thin oil paints at all. I never do. Years ago I used a combination of varnish and linseed and turpentine as a medium, then I became concerned about solvent buildup in the air and in my lungs so I just stopped. I’ve never been able to see any difference in the way the colour goes on.

But if you work in washes or glazing and pure oil colour is too thick, try Gamblin Gamsol, a mild artist thinner that is biodegradable, has a very slow evaporation rate, and has all aromatic compounds refined out of it. Or you can thin your paint with an alkyd medium such as Galkyd, Solvent-Free Gel, or Cold Wax Medium, all by Gamblin. Gamblin takes studio safety very seriously. (And no, this isn’t a paid advertisement. It’s just me helping out!)

For cleaning, again, you don’t need solvents. Plain cooking oil and paper towel will take a lot of the paint out. Then use Masters Brush Cleaner, Mona Lisa Pink Soap, or SavvySoap, and water. Or for bigger cleaning jobs, try Eco-House Extra Mild Citrus Thinner. It combines the solving action of natural orange peel oil in food quality with highly purified mineral oils. One of my long-time go-tos.

As for the tradition, traditions are made to be added to, changed, ignored. I use oil colours on thinly loaded brushes and no thinners at all. I brush on the paint and then brush it on again. I never wait for drying between layers; I just keep going. Edges can be brushed away, wet colours added on top of each other, and if all else fails, the slower drying time of oil colours lets me wipe off any un-fixable disasters as many as several days later.

Artists’ oil colours can be so rich and intense, or delicate and precise, and they can be applied with every stroke an experiment. I love the paint’s fluidity, the way it forgives my messes, the way it has no more need for rules than I do.

Or you do. Enjoy.

But if you still have questions, feel free to post in the comments and I’ll answer as best I can.

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This blog is a series of posts from one artist’s life. To receive updates, with stories from the artist’s studio and beautiful images, plus a free printable postcard of one of my most recent paintings, just put your email in the box on the right. Your email address will never be shared.

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Between Life and Art

Blog-New-painting_March-webA new painting begins on Thursday

On Thursday I reached into the future and took hold of a fistful of something. It felt like smoke that pleated where my hand closed around it. A painting began. The smoke drifted out from around the edges of my palm.

On Friday I went on March’s Adventure. Monthly adventures were my 2016 New Year’s Resolution and so far they’ve been everything I could have wanted. This one was a three-day weekend trip to Banff, Alberta, eight hours driving from my home in Val Marie, to reconnect with old friends and do some art business. It was a beautiful time, rich with affection and landscape and the possibility of everything. On Sunday I drove the same eight hours home.

Today, Monday, I’m back in my studio. The smoke has evaporated, or whatever smoke does. My hand still reaches but it can’t grasp. I don’t remember where I was last week, how to hold a brush, how to make a mark, how to know the place that brought me here.

Maybe tomorrow will feel clearer. Maybe art is like life, slipping away and changing and becoming again. Pushing back doubt, striving, beginning.

I look forward to the becoming.

Thanks to Pam for noticing the parallels and commenting on a previous post, suggesting the idea for this one.

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This blog is a series of posts from one artist’s life. To receive updates, with stories from the artist’s studio and beautiful images, plus a free printable postcard of one of my most recent paintings, just put your email in the box on the right. Your email address will never be shared.

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Where Are You in Your Artist’s Quest?

Blog-studio2016A quest for the future

Each new painting feels like you’re reaching deep into the future. You don’t even know if it’s a future that exists. There are so many possible futures. Yet this painting must take you into some kind of future, because to stay where you are is to die.

And at the same time, you reach into the past. The past is where you came from. If you try to ignore how you got to the place you are now, you can only stay here. And to stay where you are is to die.

The artist’s quest. The hero’s journey. Re-enacted in each new work. Maybe it all feels a bit grandiose if you think, “But I’m only painting a picture. What’s so heroic about that?” But you are using all your skill, all your learning, all the specialness that is you, to create something that didn’t exist before. You will decide to bring a idea to life. You will push back doubt. You will strive to do the best you can do, always. And then at the end of making this painting, whether the wider world appreciates what you have done or not, you will probably begin again. The next time will be that much more difficult, and that much easier.

You will never stop reaching.

Where are you in your artist’s quest? I would love to hear from you in the comments.

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This blog is a series of posts from one artist’s life. To receive updates, with stories from the artist’s studio and beautiful images, plus a free printable postcard of one of my most recent paintings, just put your email in the box on the right. Your email address will never be shared.

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