LIVE from the Forest

So, this is my first painting since the Winter – one Solstice to another.

Summer Lights

The Summer Lights of British Columbia. Painted live.

This painting is of a regular stretch of forest off the edge of a trail somewhere near McFall Creek – directly behind where I live and where I painted it. I could try and show you exactly where it is, but the light would have to be just right to recognize it.

There are a great deal many more colours out there in this forest than occur to my memory. They are things that live only in the eye. What sits in my mind as being a gray tree amid a shadowy wood will to the eye burn with gold, cinnabar, and cobalt like jewel-beetles in the sun. Trails light up at your feet like pools of honey poured through stained glass, and each stick of wood stands like a vertical rainbow.

That’s what I see on the best of days, anyway, and it’s what I was out in the forest looking for like an entomologist with a butterfly net.

I’ll admit it: I was feeling a bit unsteady before I got started on this one. Out of tune, maybe – but I wanted to see it made more than I feared to make it.

A good sign for fair weather.

As mentioned before, Winter had left me feeling a little frostbitten, and though I was thawing out, I wasn’t sure yet how many fingers and toes I had left to work with.

All of them, as it turns out.

Fear isn’t just a liar, it’s a drama-queen.

Real tricks and trades: When I dread painting something, I sort of trick myself into production mode by getting started, and then posting infrequent “work-in-progress” pictures to social media as I go.

From composition to about mid-way through, I’ll post little sneak-peaks of things that may not survive to the end, but please me enough that I want to share them. Things change dramatically during the broad-strokes, and that’s fun for me to see in other painters – so I do the same. Closer to the final stages, I’ll hold back and let the final piece fill in whatever blanks are left.

Doing it that way, I feel like I’m walking through shorter milestones and I get to benefit from a little back-slapping encouragement along the way.

On the less fuzzy-wuzzy flip-side of that coin is the equally motivating factor of public accountability.

Once I’ve started something in the public, I tend to feel strongly obligated to complete it for anyone who’s interested in seeing it finished. Even if I myself lose interest, I want to make sure you don’t, and weird as it sounds, it sort of puts me on the clock to get the job done. Knowing I left it out there hanging around all messy and under-cooked encourages me to fight it through to the end instead of privately balling it up and bank-shotting it into the recycling bin.

Why do you think so many people post weekly fitness pictures instead of just one at the end?

I knew these methods well, and I knew they’d serve me in the coming days, but it wasn’t following through from one marker to the next that was giving me trouble at this point. It was getting started on something at all.

Be bold: At a certain point, you have to say yes in the places where you’ve been saying no. Courage is called for, yes, and action required before discovering that risk is simpler and more energizing than the perpetual anticipation of defeat.

I had a gorgeous piece of scenery to work with, my equipment was functional, and though I hadn’t painted for a while, my sketchbooks were full of interesting new work (all about trees and plants, no less). All I had to do was stop thinking and get started.

Burnt out on being burnt out, the idea of listening to myself continue the debate between nihilistic paralysis and the red hot urgency to get a grip was nauseating. Rather than let it wind to a pitch, I hit the breaks like a frustrated parent and threatened to raise the stakes.

I’d paint it live.

No safety nets. No buffer. Just an internet audience of followers, friends, colleagues, and anonymous randoms watching every naked move I make on the canvas with as much power of scrutiny as I myself get.

No negotiating. No thinking about it. No more whining about your delicate introverted workarounds. Just shut the fuck up and do it.

So I just shut up and did it.

I’d done a few live painting sessions before at festivals, but this would be different. I wouldn’t just be one dude with a colourful whatever in a playground of other spectacles; I’d be working directly from my screen to yours – however many of you happened to tune in during broadcast. I’ve never been good with crowds, and I don’t like being the center of attention, but the time for hand-wringing was past. If I didn’t stop, I never would. The key, like it is on stage, would lay in not becoming overly self-conscious; which is about as challenging as it is for you to not imagine an octopus in a top-hat now that I’ve said the words octopus in a top-hat.

I’d never let anyone in that close to my processes before. I wasn’t giving myself anywhere to hide, and as I realized that, I kind of freed myself from any fear about it at all. Any of it. I mean, who cares if it’s boring? or full of mistakes nobody else notices? or if nobody shows up to watch? or if everybody does?

What, was I afraid of showing how much care I put into a painting? Like that’s a bad thing?

Sometimes the big scary thing is the best option just because it’s different. The devil you don’t know can be a lot more fun than the boring old threadbare one you’re stuck with.

All told, there were about three or four sessions at three to six hours a piece to produce the above painting. I think the end of the final broadcast on this one ended sometime after two AM on a Sunday.

Practice vs. Product: I don’t view the individual paintings, drawings, or scraps of writing that I dribble out as being particularly important. It’s just noise. I view the practice as important. It’s the practice, and the making of that practice as frequent as possible that is my highest priority.

The product is secondary. That said, whatever it happens to be held in the eyes of other people is important to me, but if I focus on the practice instead, there’s more product for more eyes to behold anyway.

In the case of this painting, I’d fallen away from the practice of painting long enough that I got my priorities backward. I’d put way too much importance on the anticipated quality of the work and not on the quantity of the practice. I’m lucky that this forest turned out in a way that I’m happy with, but it shouldn’t ever really matter that much.

No matter what you’re working on, even if what you work on never sees the light of day, keep picking away at it. The practice of practice itself might be the most important skill to have, and it applies to every discipline I could name.

In any case, I think that maybe I’ve got it figured out again for a while, and it’s my intention to keep painting live and posting new work as often as I can – even if, or perhaps especially if it doesn’t rise to my expectations or make a lot of sense.

I’m also slowly working on opening up a few more pipelines to my work where I can publish segments of other projects in progress.

If you’re interested in tuning in to watch me work on my next painting, follow me on twitter or instagram so you can see me drop the link when I’m about to get started. Or you can go here to my twitch channel and wait. As it is today, I’m nearing the end of a live painting of the Helix Nebula. Feel free to show up and bother me with messages, tweets, and comments.

Or pizzas. I’m open to being hassled by pizzas.

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Cranberry Lake Ice / Slump Resistance

Aha! Look at this! A painting!

It’s been a while, right? Yes, I detoured into strange dungeons for a time drawing trees in my sketchbooks, but I’m back to painting once again and there’s things to be said about it.

Before I do that, however, let’s have a look at the thing I painted last.

Cranberry Lake

This was something I put together over the course of a week back in the Winter – I can’t remember exactly when. I had been wandering around the edge of Cranberry lake one afternoon and saw children skating and playing hockey on it under the crown of a fiery hillside. An old rowboat stood poised on the shore as though ready to be launched by ghostly fishermen onto the ice, while across the way, purple and blue shade had begun to creep up out of the lake and over the houses like a tide.

I snapped a few reference photos and committed the rest to memory, then walked back to my studio to get started.

This one was a big struggle to work on, and to my eye, I can see the scratches of unnecessarily added labour all over it. Beset with more equipment failures, I had to go further than usual for each brush-stroke. I had to wait constantly for the software to catch up on every move, and often had to stop to chase down and eliminate unintended lines generated from skipping across the screen like a needle on a record. Reboots and battery failures at random intervals set me hours behind when they rolled through.

I think because of the technical challenges presented by this piece, I was left feeling like it was a bit of a mess when I was done. I didn’t like it, and because I didn’t like it, I sort of pushed it into the digital equivalent of the attic and hadn’t given it so much as a glance since.

I was also kind of terrified that I might be facing a final equipment failure which might take me out of painting altogether for months. These glitches were getting more frequent, and I could tell my operation was hanging by a thread.

The value of this painting and everything associated with it was steadily decreasing in my mind the longer I didn’t look at it, and the longer I put that off, the longer I put off wanting to try painting another landscape.

Or anything, come to think of it.

Why bother, right? Fighting with a dying computer to produce an ugly painting which might also result in losing my ability to paint at all? And Winter sucks and blahblahblahblahself-loathingblaaahhh.

Oh yes, the Winter had me now. All solitude, self doubt, and elaborate procrastination spirals piled onto the melancholy compost with the rest. Expenses carried on being expenses, but there were no art sales for Christmas after I went deep out of pocket for stock; my paintings weren’t generating much interest; and my funding was just coming to an end.

These are not conditions I historically tend to thrive under. I don’t think anyone does.

Welcome to the bottom curve of the slump; where all thy dread chickens come home to roost.

Spin ahead a few months, and I’ve climbed out and picked up my brush once again (with a nicely filled sketchbook of new, original work to boot). I’ve given this icy painting a second look, and it is not at all the boring outhouse deposit I thought it was. It’s messy, sure – but in a fun way; like weeds that look like flowers anyway. I’ve painted a new landscape since, and I feel confident in my abilities and where I’m going next with my projects – something unimaginable to myself a few months ago.

Which brings me to why I chose to write about it. This was a pretty major slump, and I really, reaaaallly don’t want to fall into it again. Now that it’s passed, I’ll be better prepared to react to the conditions that might cause another.  There’s reefs here worth marking down on the chart; for myself and for anyone else in the pursuit of making stuff. If you’re feeling stuck, blocked, or otherwise underwater, give these a try:

Read the signs: If you’re feeling defeated in your pursuit, have a look around at your circumstances and see what little adjustments you can make.

A sense of being shipwrecked might just due in part to your environment – physically, mentally, and socially. If Winter’s closing in, make sure you’re getting the nutrition, light, and positive social contact you need to balance out the difference. Get out in public spaces. Make sure you’re sleeping well and keeping hours that maximize daylight. Don’t let the household clutter of Winter gather too deep.

It’s the little things, and they add up in both directions.

Money isn’t everything (even though it kind of is): Unless you’re a retiree or have some kind of patron, you’re likely working directly toward a financial goal, or at least keeping a weather-eye on money with your creative pursuit.

While it’s important to pay your bills however you can, it’s not absolutely everything.

I mean it is. But it isn’t.

In times when the work isn’t there, make sure you are. Stay busy. Stay active. Stay loud. Keep making improvements to your craft and keep producing work. Do it in front of other people and make sure they see you do it.

If you bail out on making new things, you’ll only get rusty, lose confidence, and ultimately take yourself out of the spotlight.

Can’t get hired? Hire yourself.

No really. Go ahead and write yourself a contract to produce that dream idea you’ve been keeping on the back-burner. You can’t just spend your day looking for work and being mad and yourself that you can’t find it. It’s bad for you.

Just do that for part of the day, then go to work for yourself.

Even if you’re self employed with playing cards and Japanese pocket change (I paid myself with the King of Diamonds and a 500 yen piece) you’re still getting better at what you do, your portfolio is increasing, and you’re giving someone who may love your work the opportunity to find you.

Looking back over a month, you’ll feel much happier and more accomplished for working on that pet project during the hours you might otherwise have spent banging your head against the wall. Where there might have been a string of solid defeats, you can carve out your own victories and rise a little higher each time.

Get a second opinion: You may think you’ve got it all figured out. You know your situation. You know your habits, your mind, the particular quirks of your process. You’re the expert, right? You know it all, and you’re certain that this is how it is, and how it must be.

Yeah, no. Not even.

You might pride yourself on keeping a healthy, balanced view of the world and of yourself, but that’s something that’s going to be challenged with some regularity – particularly in stressful times. It might erode quicker than you think when adversity’s been hanging around long enough.

If you find yourself full of self doubt and anxiety about your situation, your work, or who you are, your opinion is probably already compromised. Get an outside view from people you trust. Chances are, half the worries circling over your head will be shot right out of the sky, freeing up room for the positive activity you want to get back to. If you leave it only to yourself – particularly when you’re not at your best – you’ll end up with only the most cynical, limited, and prejudiced version of the truth.

Nobody has ever agreed with Eeyore except Eeyore.

Analysis is good; action is better: Once you’ve got your second opinions and you’ve straightened out all the tendrils of the problem, the next part is doing something about it. The trouble is that this can be an incredibly difficult thing to do if you’ve been wrestling with it for a while. You might feel burnt out, or fear that you’ve become dull or incapable.

The solution that I’ve found in these instances is to set up a practice of something related to your craft; one that involves being in a particular place outside of your usual routine and includes a specific, limited set of supplies. A sketchbook in at the beach, say, or a pad of writing paper in the garden. Once you’ve put yourself bodily in the space you’ve set out with the supplies you’ve brought, you might find it much easier to dip your toe back into the water than you think.

I mean, you’re already there. Just inches away.

Put yourself there without any expectation and eventually, you’ll start to associate that place and those tools with a positive, productive task. Over time, these practices become habits that stay with you regardless of what your head-space is. Repeated use brings confidence and diminishes fear regardless of the size of the thing you’re doing. You might find paintings less terrifying, for example, if you keep drawing weird trees in your sketchbook every day.

 

The conditions that produce a bad slump time in dump town are common and easy to see coming. It’s when they start hunting in packs over the winter that you’ve got to watch out. Once they pile on together, they’re harder than ever to shake.

Take them on one at a time, and go on the offensive. Go look at the work you’re proud of; go see another human from time to time (my apologies if you’re not human – go see a wolf or an eel); go take a long, long walk; keep your media diet positive (skip the Smiths and cable news); and stay busy doing the next thing – even if it’s tinier than anything you’ve ever done.

Make it small and simple. Stay busy with it.

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Yin-Yang

The other night I dreamt I was on a moon that orbited not the planet, but the lake near my house. I could see everything from up there, but I myself could not be seen or heard – except in notes I made from paper airplanes. They had to be thrown hard enough to curve along the surface of the moon two or three times in full orbit to make escape velocity.

From there, who knows where they landed.

trees29

Here’s another exploration of organic shapes, lines, and colour. This time lighter balances against darker – not as intrinsic elements, but as shades of the same thing.

 

Wooden

Three pencils, a blank sheet of paper; my hands and mind. This is what comes about in the span of a pot of coffee.

trees28

It kind of feels like exploration – which is good for me. I’ve often felt quite bound to material subjects when I paint; trying to capture a likeness to something already known. This isn’t that.

Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Sketchdrop: More or Less

I’m still exploring the organic, maze-like surfaces of trees – and in the process I’ve gone further in the direction of abstraction.

trees 23

In one case, I tried turning stumps into moons. There was something about the way the knots and layers of bark were coming together that reminded me of craters.

Some of these drawings were done in a group setting with friends. Others done while swilling coffee at the neighbourhood diner.

Oh, and here’s a bonus drawing of Rodin’s great sculpture in red pencil. As perhaps my last post might explain, I’ve been lost in thought, and this seemed – at the time – to be the best way to express heat and the muscular struggle and weight of thought without actually admitting anything.

I’ve really got to stop being so oblique. It’s one of my most frustrating qualities.

The collection of these grows steadily, and again, I find myself with the material for a legitimate show in the works. Once I have a venue, I’ll put them on display and make them available for sale.