Being a Painter

I was twelve years old when I saw my first real paintings. I didn’t see them at a museum or an art gallery—I didn’t know those things existed until I was seventeen. I was naïve to art until my parents bought a house and I was exploring the attic. There, past boxes of old books and dusty knick-knacks and behind a rack of clothing, I found large painted canvases in gilded gold frames leaning against a far wall. I saw portraits as tall as me, and landscapes wider than the breadth of my arms. As I studied and felt their painted surfaces, I was awestruck. These weren’t like the decorative vegetable pictures that would soon hang in my mother’s kitchen; these were alive with paint and brushstrokes and the smell of linseed oil and turpentine. When my parents explained to me that someone—an actual person—had painted them, I knew I wanted to be a painter.

I took art classes in high school and fumbled with learning all the mysteries of painting. I lived in Small Town, USA, where good paints and brushes were never a priority in any of our schools. But the dream of painting canvases never died.

Going to college was out of the question until I heard about the GI Bill. So I pulled a six-year stint in the Navy and was fortunate to visit some Italian, French and Spanish art museums. Once again, seeing manmade beauty and magic on canvases mesmerized me and burned brighter the wish to be a painter.

I painted watercolors in sketchbooks until the Navy released me in 1982. By then I was married, so I chose my academic training at a local college. Most of my art teachers there were leftover abstract painters from the 1960’s and ’70’s who stressed personal expression in art—not reality. In other words, don’t paint what you see, but how you feel. I became unhappy with these classes because I didn’t see how this approach could teach me how to paint the realism of landscapes and wildlife—two of my favorite subjects. I wanted to copy nature exactly as I saw it in the photographs I took.  But, as one instructor told me bluntly, “Painting is not photography. Forget about technical tricks and learn to see and express the world around you that is genuine and exciting to you.”

It took a year for his advice to sink in. I saw every painting as a new adventure—a struggle of course—to be expressive as well as showing realism. I learned how to marry abstract expressionism with photo-realism to produce paintings with elements of both, and to use color and design to express mood, all the while keeping the paint looking fresh and dramatic.

But I would be lying if I said every painting was a success. Even now, twenty-some years later, I paint failures … clunkers, as we called them in art classes. “No one ever masters the art of painting,” a teacher told me. “Every day we discover something new that shakes us from our mindset and reminds us that we’ll always be students.”

I am still a student. I have many years of painting behind me, but I still learn new things. It’s the fun of the chase that keeps me going—still learning my craft.

I never fuss over my work like I used to. If a painting is not working, I scrap it for a new one. I see too many artists with their noses against their paintings fussing over their work. If it isn’t working, scrap it. If you’re a fussy artist, learn to step away from the art and stop judging critically with your nose against the work. Stand back and judge your art by the progress you’re making at the moment and keep gauging your progress as you continue with your studies. Yes, I said studies. Never stop being a student. And please don’t try to paint pictures that look the same as your contemporaries. Where’s the originality in that? Be inventive—be creative!

Stay committed to keep learning the craft no matter how hard the struggle. Every artist has gone to the grave still learning his or her craft. We strive for aesthetic progress and perfection—that is human nature, and we will destroy pieces of work if we believe them inferior. In all our paintings, we find mistakes. Mistakes are human nature, too, so don’t be the artist who destroys everything he or she paints. Accept your limitations for the moment, frame your better paintings full of mistakes, and send them off to juried shows. Someone will love your artwork in spite of all its flaws.

Those paintings I found in that attic when I was twelve years old speak as strongly to me now as they did in 1969. I got hooked on painting that began a wonderful ride through the exciting world of being an artist. It’s a ride I refuse to get off of—there’s so much more to be discovered.

Keep on painting and making art.

I Find No Joy In the Retail Shuffle

Doing the Retail Shuffle
Doing the Retail Shuffle

Today is the last day of my vacation. As I prepare to return to work at my job in retail, I’m sad that I won’t have entire days to work on my art and writing my stories. I spent most of my vacation catching up on time lost toward completing my current novel. (My retail job has a way of interfering with my creative work.) My vacation was the most fun I have had since … well, my vacation last year.

Now, in the last stages of bliss, I see that I have neglected this blog for too long. Allow me then to indulge you with seven uncomplicated thoughts about my job in retail.

First, my job in retail is not a career. I cannot imagine anyone wanting a career in retail, but I’m not going to knock down anyone who does.

Second, long and mundane weekend hours are just one example of why retail has never made me want to commit as a lifer.

Third, comparatively low pay is another reason I don’t want a career in retail. Low pay includes workers just starting out and those who are in management.

Fourth, retail workers often have to look to government help for access to health care. I can afford health care for me through my employer, but I cannot afford to add my spouse.

Fifth, keeping up with the cost of living in general is difficult for people who work in retail, but living within my means has helped me stay afloat (though I wish I could afford a car and all of Pennsylvania’s ridiculous requirements to own one).

Sixth, my job’s inconvenient schedule makes scheduling time for family and social life difficult, let alone time for art and writing. Retail IS working weekends, nights, and holidays … AND a lot of unpredictable work days.

But beyond all this is

Seventh, my retail job has been steady income for almost thirteen years. (But I’m not a lifer! I swear!) My art and writing have never brought me a steady income. So, the few dollars I may save between paychecks of my steady income often go to supporting fellow artists and writers (instead of buying a car and all of Pennsylvania’s ridiculous requirements to own one). To me, art and literature are important and that’s what I want to support. Artists and writers are the people who build civilizations. I cannot imagine a world without them. I can imagine, however, a world without convenient stores and fast food restaurants.

Whether I’m flipping burgers or selling 100-inch TVs, if I lose my job tomorrow, I will still be an artist and a writer. Albeit, a penniless artist and writer, but only until another door opens … hopefully one where I can use my skills to their fullest. That’s another problem with retail: poor use of people’s skills. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to run a cash register, but you know rocket scientist are running cash registers somewhere. (I’ll save that one for another list.)

Until my next post, have a great day.

The Day I Helped Create an Artists Guild

In 1997, when I was 40 and had been busy teaching art, as well as creating and selling artwork for nearly 15 years, I happened to re-read an essay from my college days, “From Art Student to Fine Artist,” written by Jacob W. Getzels. In it he rightfully claims that every year thousands of young people enroll in art schools, colleges and universities, yet only a few become professional artists after graduating because art students are the most disregarded — there are no places that facilitate entry into an occupation like other professions. “A degree in fine art,” he says, “has little effect on the holder as a fine artist. The art school may increase artistic skills, but the certification it gives does not bestow artistic status in the sense that a school of law or medicine bestows legal or medical status. [The artist] hopes that society will recognize and reward what he is doing.”

Since I failed every year to have my artwork accepted in national shows entries, my closest reward for recognition was the art competition held every summer at the local park where city officials handed out ribbons to artwork voted Best of Show. Although I wasn’t nationally known, I found satisfaction showing and selling my art at the park, even when I won no awards.

Also, I felt proud of my accomplishments, and I felt quite successful as a productive and selling artist. Getzels’ essay concludes that an artist must first negotiate the difficulties of being independent and relatively unknown. He says, “An artist needs to be introverted, sensitive, and self-sufficient in order to do the work, as well as entrepreneurial and sociable, and a salesman and master of ceremonies in order to show and sell the work. Likewise, an artist’s persistence to produce the work, as well as to exhibit and sell it will determine the extent of his failure or success.” And, I realized, attitude plays an important part as well: how satisfied artists are with their status in society. I had met too many disgruntled artists angry at the world because they didn’t receive the recognition they felt they deserved.

That year, the summer of ’97, while I and fellow artists sold our art and demonstrated our how-to styles of painting at the City Park, several young people approached us and revealed their interests in becoming artists. Among their excitement of becoming artists as good as us, several voiced their anxieties about being “not very rosy-cheeked at all,” as one young lady worded it. High school art was “too craftsy,” she and others said; not enough emphasis was put on drawing and painting techniques, and so they feared they may not be accepted at prestigious art colleges. They believed that diplomas with big name universities were their tickets to getting the best art jobs. (So do some of my colleagues to this day.)

Some of these young artists were ex-students of mine, and several exclaimed that they had learned more from me than any other teacher. They wished that I taught at the senior high and college levels, too. (So did I, sometimes.) But I told them that no matter where they went to learn, always keep the joy of learning and making art burning inside them. A few would. The others would change their majors to ones our society considers more practical.

I thought about Getzels’ essay that day. Without support from seasoned artists, these kids faced enormous opportunities to fail. I got together with my fellow artists that day and co-created an artist’s club with them. Our intention was always to teach what we knew and to help and counsel anyone feeling lost, overwhelmed, not good enough — all those notions that play at our minds when we’re not feeling our best.

This summer, the Artists’ Guild will enter its seventeenth year. It has artists of a wide spectrum of age and talent, as well as many members willing to tackle problems and seek solutions. Overall, this you-can-do-it quality has made the group succeed, and it has been the care, understanding, and encouragement of its seasoned veterans that has kept the light shining for the newer and younger artists.

The group’s thriving membership and longevity proves that success isn’t measured by how many paintings we artists sell or the ribbons we win, but by what we give to our fellow artists and the world around us.

Sad Panther Drawing

While going through some old art files, I came across this pen and ink drawing of a black panther drawn February 14, 1982. I was learning the craft of illustration, clearly seen in the clumsiness you see in my execution. Still, it is a nice drawing, which is why I kept it. Also because it made my seven-month-old son laugh. After all these years, when I see this drawing, I still hear his giggles.