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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Art: Virtual Plein Air

I’d been to Oregon a couple of Summers ago and loved every inch of the place (and I know I barely scratched the surface). While there, we stopped in at all sorts truly wonderful places – but right at the tip-top of the list for jaw dropping grandeur was Haystack Rock on Cannon Beach. I knew I’d be painting that stone monument before long, and I was right.

This, however, is not a painting from that trip.

No. This is a painting I produced as part of a sketchbook group exercise on Facebook. The group was called “Virtual Plein Air” and the objective was to drive Google street view to any random spot on earth, park, and paint what you found as though you were really standing there. It was a fascinating idea. I had to try it.

The majority of the group were digital artists from all over the world, so the whole concept of the exercise sounded like the kind of thing that would be pure science-fiction to anyone from before the 90s – or possibly witchcraft to anyone before that. I mean, go find ANY view on earth picked up by robot cameras, then paint it using a pen-board onto a machine that will share it to a group of other people spread around the globe. Instantly.

Try explaining that to Turner, or Monet.

I chose Haystack Rock as my subject because of how impressive it was standing over me in person, and because I hadn’t gotten around to painting it from my own source photography yet. I’m sure I’ll do that eventually, but in the mean-time Google Street View would be my muse.

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach - Oregon

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach – Oregon

And here’s the B-Side:

Why a B-Side?

Because I like spending hours on stupid jokes. Also – I love the goonies, which was filmed in nearby Astoria (along with Short Circuit and a few others). Part of the road-trip that took me to Oregon was spent exploring the film sets and backdrops where these rad childhood favourites were filmed. I guess while I was in that frame of mind, I decided to watch the Goonies again, and this was the result.

Heyyyy you guyyyysss

Heyyyy you guyyyysss

And now for the cherry on this slice of cake. I would call this song a guilty pleasure, but I don’t have those.

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Art: Shady Island – Steveston BC

Before ever exploring anything beyond Steveston Village (which I had visited on one occasion previously – in a kilt, tie, and frock coat, no less), I had heard about and seen photos of shady island. A soon-to-be girlfriend of mine at the time lived nearby, and her running path took her past the breakwater that stretched between the shores of shady island and lulu island (upon which Steveston sits).

In conversation from afar, I had light-heartedly suggested we cross that breakwater at low-tide with a picnic or with camping gear, and spend the tide interval there in the sun and the forest. Of course we’d never gotten around to it, and I’m not even sure if it was a serious idea, but I thought about it every time I saw the island. It was on our “someday list”.

Shady Island - Steveston BC

Shady Island – Steveston BC

On perhaps my last visit to Steveston, I heard news that my father had passed away. I had always known I’d hear that news sooner rather than later given his lifestyle, but it came as a soul-deflating shock nonetheless. It’s a sad truth we’ve all got to face sooner or later, but my relationship with my father was a strange one, and with it came strange and mixed feelings that quite suddenly needed to be unpacked and examined. I chose to do this difficult thing (as I often did with difficult things) while taking a long walk.

I walked from my girlfriend’s apartment through Britannia Shipyards, through the village, and off into Garry Point park – then reaching the ocean I turned back and walked all the way to Finn Slough. I don’t think I’d even begun to sort anything out, but being busy and tired was what I needed.

I stopped for a while across from shady island and took a few pictures, which became the basis of this painting. In compiling reference for my landscape series, I picked this image out because it was striking. It wasn’t until I started painting it that I had remembered its context.

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Art: The Wreck of the Peter Iredale

The Graveyard of the Pacific – a region of turbulent, unpredictable ocean in the Pacific Northwest ranging between Tilamook Bay down in Oregon up to Cape Scott on Vancouver Island. It’s a dangerous, but beautiful place. It’s reputedly the last resting place of thousands of ships going back to the days of the fur trade.

Here in Powell River on the Salish Sea, we form part of the middle of the graveyard. Growing up here, sailing, fishing, and old shipwrecks are just part of the cultural DNA. One of our major landmarks here in town is a string of ruinous old war-ships tethered together in the form of a breakwater off the front of the mill. Having grown up around these hulking naval monuments, I’ve always been eager to see more. My sketchbooks are littered with them.

The Wreck of the Peter Iredale

The Wreck of the Peter Iredale

The Graveyard of the Pacific is reputedly packed with shipwrecks, but few of them are as accessible as the Peter Iredale, and since our holiday on the road happened to pass right by there on the way to Astoria, it was something we had to stop in to see for ourselves.

Once again I planted myself in the sand with my sketchbook and did a quick outline of it’s gaping, rusty hull. From certain angles, it looked like the skeleton of a beached sea monster – all serrated teeth and monumental ribs. I look forward to seeing it again some day.

Quick and scratchy from my sketchbook.

Quick and scratchy from my sketchbook.

Named for the owner of the ship and it’s fleet, the Peter Iredale took it’s last voyage from Salina Cruz, Mexico headed north to Portland with 1,000 tons of ballast and a crew of 27. It was wrecked on Clatsop Spit in 1906 during high seas and strong winds. After the naval court in Astoria discharged the ship’s captain and crew of any responsibility, the ship was sold for scrap, leaving it stripped of all of it’s valuable parts.

Captain Lawrence’s final toast to his ship was “May God bless you, and may your bones bleach in the sands”.

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Art: Rockaway Beach

In the summer of 2013, I had been on a holiday along the coast of Oregon, and in search of warm sandy beaches we stopped in at a little town called Rockaway Beach. We arrived just in time to watch an old steam-train stop right in the middle of town, like something out of a western.

My remembered impression of the area was that it was a sort of a resort town. Or a series of them, perhaps, all along the coast; the kind of places you might take the kids during Summer Break. It was July, so it was hot and sunny, but the breeze and mist rolling in from the ocean created a flux of dry heat and cool damp.

Crossing beyond the rows of resort motels, condos, shops, and quirky tourist traps, the long stretches of sandy golden beach spread out as far as the eye could see running north and south into the far off mist. Where I live, our beaches are sheltered by islands, but here it was just the great tumbling walls of the pacific before us and nothing else.

Rockaway Beach

Rockaway Beach

The twin rocks were quite a striking sight, even at a distance. I remember feeling a sense of awe as I studied them, as though I’d wandered into a dream. I had at times painted landscapes as concept art for video games, and in doing that you can get away with dashing out the strangest landmarks as throwaway scenery (mile high pillars and floating islands are a common cliche). Seeing something like that with my own eyes, however, was entirely mesmerizing. It felt like it couldn’t possibly be real.

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Art: Finn Slough

Picture, if you will, a sleepy fishing village lost amidst the tall grasses and trees of the Fraser River estuary. The houses there stand on stilts or float on the water next to their moored boats; each one a unique patchwork of the old, the homespun, and the odd.

At first it sounds like a movie set, or the home of domestic swamp pirates. In actual fact, it’s a settlement founded in the late 19th century by Finnish immigrants looking to escape the oppression of Russian occupation back home; here now to carve out a new life for themselves as farmers and fishermen on the west coast of Canada.

Some of the houses there are home to the descendants of the original settlers to this day. Others mere shells rotting in the swamp. As if the whole village wasn’t enchanting enough on its own, the residents have taken to decorating them with wild skulls, folk art, old bicycles and other junky oddments.

Finn Slough at Sunset. Late Fall.

Finn Slough at Sunset. Late Fall.

Expect to see tin-can robots, and funny signs painted on bits of shingle if ever you decide to pay it a visit (and yes, you should).

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