Hurricane Irma happened. We stayed in our island house, hunkered down and rode out the storm, even though we were told to evacuate. We stayed awake through the dark hours, listened to wild wind and rain, and jumped when the heavy thumps of trees came down around us. It was frightening. With the morning light, we surveyed the remnants of our universe. The old trees that had hugged my property for so long snapped in half. My now-treeless sand dunes have become a barren alternate reality. So strange.
I have always accepted hurricanes as part of living in paradise. But they are never easy.
I’m finding it hard to get into my painting studio while I’m shell shocked. I want to sleep more and eat too much, and I think I’ll give into it. I forget sometimes that I’m not a machine – I can’t just whip out new paintings every week forever. I believe that after a major stress, you have to give yourself a break. Read a book. Swim. Take a day or two or twenty to catch up and pamper your soul.
I live through artist eyes in a world of vivid color and abstract shapes. My mind breathes in a transcendent tangle similar to Alice’s Wonderland. My mind perceives people as super-animated, grays as radiant purple, and trees actually dancing.
I dwell in this alternate reality when I paint every day. Regular practice keeps me completely engaged with a living surrealism. Here, blank white canvases are not intimidating, but inviting. Rather than being sucked in by mundane distractions of clothing that goes unwashed and tonight’s dinner potatoes still unbought, I pick up the brush and jump single-mindedly down the rabbit hole.
The Big Jump
When I begin my painting frenzy, the landscape vibrates with invisible brilliance as it plays out across the canvas. While I’m so completely engrossed, it’s a trick to not go overboard. I try to capture raw intensity while keeping it from being distracting. I balance perfection with hodgepodge. As my painting emerges over the next few days, I observe before-unnoticed nuances; this is when I soften overenthusiastic edges, fix unfortunate shapes, and tone down the purples and oranges.
The Wonderland of the Mundane
The magic lives on when I come up for air. I notice exotic tree contours as I drive to the supermarket for tonight’s potatoes. Unusual color combinations insinuate themselves as I fold the wash. Few of my non-painting friends understand my strange consciousness. They call it eccentric. It could be madness.
Sometimes, I find myself staring at a bush or a sidewalk. It’s the color. Or the shadow/light.
If you’re an artist, I’ll bet you know what I mean.
Artists are obsessives. We talk about art, live art, breathe art. Plan, research, create. All the time. Even on vacation we’re snapping reference photos and stopping by galleries and museums.
However, having a razor-sharp obsession on art doesn’t always equal success. The art world is a very big place. It’s easy to get lost.
And listening to “experts” makes it worse. They command us with “101 Important Things You Need to Do to Be a Successful Artist.” It’s crazy. We’d need to hire 10 assistants to do everything. So, we try to explore different media, subject matter, and techniques. Sell online, through galleries, festivals, direct to customers, and shows. Social media, blog, network, P.R. It’s overwhelming.
And going in too many directions creates superficial art. We risk never reaching our potential because we’re too busy chasing everything.
Instead, I try to stay with the basics. Simplify. Focus. Create art every day. Market only to outlets where it makes sense. Don’t do everything. Spend quiet days in my studio and just paint. I work with just a few important galleries and have a simple online presence. And when my “must do” list gets too crazy, I brutally slash out the dead weight.
Someone mentioned in my class today, wouldn’t it be fun to paint with your eyes closed.
We had been talking about how you should paint what you feel. Monet and Van Gogh painted impressions of their surroundings. They painted with emotion. It was about the air and light rather than rendering a perfect photographic image.
I have found impressionist painting to be intensely meditative. Quiet. You breathe in your surroundings. Taste the bold shapes and intensity of color and optimism in the atmosphere. That’s the important part. You breathe out by placing informed paint onto the canvas.
Today the class painted sky and field. One of the students went very minimalist, with a simple blue sky and a yellow field. Uncomplicated. Palette knife work. So expressive. As if he were painting with his eyes closed. As if he were in prayer or meditating while his hand reflected what he felt. This student smiles while he works.
For me, it’s almost a form of yoga practice. Close your eyes. What do you feel? What do you hear? Feel the sensation of breathing in and out. Now open your eyes and quickly get those sensations down on the canvas.
This idea of painting with your eyes closed can be used as a warm-up to painting, or as an actual on-going practice. It will make you relax. It will loosen you up. And you will end up smiling the entire time you paint.
Most of my professional artist friends are overwhelmed by their growing amount of art. Even many of the highly successful artists who make a nice living and paint beautiful work suffer from an overabundance of old and unsold work. Artists hoard, stuff into closets, line hallways, 10-deep sitting against the walls in bedrooms, kitchens, dining rooms, and living rooms. Old art, new art, multiple prints/giclees, good, and bad. A predicament.
The solution? Sell it.They try. But many artists’ finest paintings have already been shown and failed to sell.
The problem is the art market has changed. The current generation of art purchasers have grown up in the era of minimalism, Ikea, and Target. They don’t want grandma’s old Hummel collection or the china closet that held it. This is the era of living lightly, buying small homes, and owning less.
A couple of months ago, a local auctioneer told me she’s experiencing a “glut” of original art. She said that she’s getting $25 for the gorgeous paintings that had been in galleries for $4,000. I am not kidding. She said there are too many artists and too few buyers, and the result is too much art.
Is Art Dead?
Art is certainly not dead at the top of the market – the big New York auction houses are selling major pieces at unheard-of highs. And it’s still alive in the middle of the market, but now collectors want investment pieces that create a statement rather than clutter.
What Do Artists Do?
Successful artists adapt to changing lifestyle trends and sell their best work. And they get creative with the leftovers.
Robert chooses to live in the clutter of his paintings; his estate will have to figure out how to dispose of his paintings after he dies. Emily sells old/bad pieces in garage sales for next to nothing, but wrestles with undercutting her galleries, putting bad pieces out in the market, and devaluing her art. Others donate, gift, and paint over old work.
My Personal Solution: I sell my best work through galleries or online. I keep a few. And then, gulp. I bonfire. Burn and release. Watch the smoke carry away the last sparks of one-time hopeful masterpieces. It’s a sad moment. Then I walk away. Back in the studio, clutter-free, I replace old dogs with new hopefuls.
Changes… While my roots are in soft impressionism, I’ve been going in the direction of abstract for years. I’ve always appreciated and used techniques of abstract landscapes – painting very high horizon lines, graphic shapes, and unusual compositions. But recently I took a surprising leap into exploration of more abstract forms.
I’d gotten into a rut. Take trees, for example. I’ve done lots of plein air painting, and trees are always there. Trees and more trees. Again and again. They’ve become, well, boring. I desperately needed to find something different to do with trees.
Breakthrough: Out by the marsh painting with friends. I didn’t want to paint another marsh scene. Not another tree. I sat there. I couldn’t paint it. I was frozen in my painting chair as I gazed out on the familiar scene. Then, the trees moved in the wind, as if to say, look again. That moment, I started to really see them. Something changed.
My hand started moving on the canvas. The trees were moving. Fun. I gave them a party. That day, they threw confetti into the wind. They stretched. They danced. And my whole world shifted into something different. I’m seeing in semi-abstract now. And the fun begins again.