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Monday, April 23, 2018

Creating Dynamic Design from Photos

 "Waiting" - Oil on linen - 9x12"
First Place - Federation of Canadian Artists 75th Anniversary Show

One of the most interesting challenges to play with as an artist is transforming photos into strong visual stories, rather than simply copying the photo directly.

While sometimes we get the chance to shoot photos that are ready-made compositions, there are also times you can see the ingredients for a strong design and take the shot from a distance knowing you can work with it later in the studio.

I'm including my original photo here so you can see the process I use to find a design.

Eliminate What's Not Essential 

Begin by narrowing in on what captivated you to take the photo. 

Is there a story that feels intriguing to you? If so great, that might be your motivation to paint the subject. Or you might just have a feeling about a subject, and are not sure yet how to proceed.

Either way, start by asking questions that can be answered in the language of paint:
  • What arrangement of visual elements excites you?
  • Are there colours or shapes that draw your interest? 
  • Do you see natural places for hard edges, and others for soft ones?
  • Are there areas you can paint simply, leaving room for mystery and inviting in the imagination of your viewer?
  • Are there clear areas for some delightful, interesting detail?
  • What can be eliminated? Are there any elements or spaces that don't directly support your "why" for painting this?

Now that you've done a high fly over of what this painting is going to be about for you - here's a sure fire way to find great design:

Look for Compelling Patterns of Light and Shadow

Instead of seeing your subject as "a man in a chair on a phone, with some other chairs and a table" - look for the shapes that are in light, and the shapes that are in shadow.

Draw those shapes out in a small thumbnail. Then using a chisel edge sharpie, fill in every shape that is in shadow. What is left white will be whatever is in light. You will lose some of your drawing as you do this - which is exactly what you want.

This will help you see opportunities for lost edges, places you can create and connect shapes by shared value. Rather than painting the shape of 'things', you are painting the shape of the light, and the shape of the shadow.

With this approach,  the design finds you without you having to figure anything out. It's magic - and so fun once you've done a few and start to get the hang of it.

You can try turning it upside down to check if it's still an interesting abstract design. If you're excited by what the thumbnail shows you - you have a great chance for a strong painting.

Trust Your Design

Now the challenge is to apply colour and detail without losing your awesome design!

In order to do this you must see colour as value first, and hue second. That's a whole other lesson, but here's one tip:

Paint a dark grey, mid grey and white block of colour on your palette, and when you are mixing a colour to go on a specific shape in your painting, put a little stroke of it beside the value block and squint to see if it merges, or feels like a contrast. If it's a strong contrast, make it closer in value by darkening or lightening it, or you will lose your design as soon as you put it on the painting.

Upcoming Workshop

I'm taking a brief break from my instructing sabbatical to lead a 3 day workshop in South Surrey, BC from May 25-27th. I have no plans to do further teaching in the foreseeable future, so if you've been wanting to study with me, now is a great time to connect!

I'd love to have you join me to play with freeing yourself from rigid adherence to your photos so you can take your design skills to the next level.

Registration info here.

Monday, August 14, 2017

25 Truisms of Plein Air Painting

"Warm in the Storm"
Oil on linen - 8x10"

I'm resurrecting a post from a few years back because I think it's a good reminder for all of us, especially me!

This list is inspired by lots of personal experience - including some masterful whining - and from noticing, in teaching hundreds plein air students, that for artists new to the plein air game, there seems to be an idea that it is supposed to be, hmmm - easier.

25 Truisms of Plein Air Painting

  1. There will be rain.
  2. You will be cold.
  3. There will be sun. 
  4. You will be hot.
  5. It will be windy.
  6. Your easel will fly.
  7. Bugs will bite you. Right on the back of your neck just as you are laying in the key highlight on the water.
  8. People, curious people with no sense of personal boundaries, will appear from out of nowhere behind you and enthusiastically exclaim, "Hey! Can I see what yer doin'?" Usually just as your painting has entered the ugly duckling stage.
  9. You will fight with your gear.
  10. Your gear will win. 
  11. You will bring way too much stuff.
  12. You'll vow to downsize.
  13. It will take a very, very, very long time for this to occur.
  14. Your painting will look nothing like what's in front of you. Most of the time. This can be good. This can be bad.
  15. You will learn and grow and improve each time you go out.
  16. It won't feel like it.
  17. You will feel frustrated, lost, confused, hopeless and very much like a total beginner. Alot. 
  18. You'll feel like you will never get it.
  19. You will get it. 
  20. You will develop superpowers of sight. 
  21. You will build character.
  22. You'll have rich experiences that will turn into treasured memories.
  23. You'll deepen friendships through the bond of shared adventure.
  24. There will be a sense of passion, joy, peace, inspiration, connection, and wonder available to you every time you go out. 
  25. 24 is the very best part. And the easiest to lose sight of. Unless you forget easy, forget comfortable, forget outcome; and tune in to that.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

What Happens When You Paint in Sacred Places

"Glacial Tarn - the Bugaboos" oil on linen - 8x10 (sold)

I used to think the goal of plein air painting was to come home with a successful painting. This misdirected intention has messed with my joy more times than I can say. Fortunately I've gotten a bit smarter about joy, and how to create more of it in my world.

I've discovered that being 'present moment' rather than outcome focused is what sets the stage for fun instead of angst.

Now I like to think of painting outdoors as a quest to gather colour and value notes that are a reflection of what's in front of me, and let the energy of the place I'm standing fill me up so that it too informs my painting.

When you paint in sacred places with an openness to receive from them, they speak to you in their own language, and they change your perceptions as a painter.

The Magic of Leaving Your Studio Comfort Zone

There are countless reasons why studio painting supports your work as an artist. But something unique happens when you get yourself outdoors in the right frame of mind.

Interestingly, the value seems to be exponential the farther away you get from the house, the car, your phone and other immediate creature comforts. Add to that some days of it linked together, and real magic starts to happen.

If you allow yourself to sink into a place, all that you "know" about painting becomes secondary, and you begin to paint more instinctively. As you're painting, your intuition is taking in all of the changing elements that are happening around you.

It's noticing the elusive things that are emerging, captivating you and then disappearing - perhaps to return, perhaps not. Either way, through your intuitive perception of them, they are becoming a part of you and your experience.

The landscape is also informing you. "Hey" it says, "notice this rhythm that's dancing from the foreground through to the sky. Don't get caught up in all the detail, squint down and notice what truth is here under the "busy-ness". It whispers to you: "a little more violet here, play up the light in this spot, let a shadow fall over the foreground in exactly this place...."

There's a dance in plein air painting that calls forth a part of your artistic soul to engage with the environment you're standing in. And there is an understanding of place when you go out repeatedly over several days that has it become a conversation about an experience.

The more you let go and receive, the more your paintings become a clear reflection of that experience, and a gift to others who view them.

Heli-Painting in the Bugaboos

This fall Stephen Quiller and I will once again be carrying on the tradition that Robert Genn and I started 6 years ago. We'll be taking a group of spirited painters into the Bugaboos for some unforgettable painting adventures, learning opportunities, wining and dining over art talk and hot tubbing under the stars.

The dates of the trip are August 31st to September 4th.

Here are some things to consider if you have a toe in the water but aren't sure if you're ready to dive on in:
  • the Bugaboos is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth
  • there is a special bond that's created when a group of artists get together for this kind of experience - it's more than a workshop, it's a captivating adventure and a fabulous shared learning opportunity
  • being lifted by a helicopter into stunning mountain places is a unique and super cool 'once in a lifetime' kind of adventure
  • Stephen and I are committed to helping you get the very most from yourself and your art. You'll go home with new tools and approaches to painting the natural world through immersing yourself completely in it, as well as raised awareness about where you will most benefit from focusing your attention in your quest to continue building your skill as a painter
  • if you are a professional artist, the trip will provide you with a wealth of valuable reference material - and of course it's a business write off
If you're ready to leap, we'd love to have you join us for a truly remarkable experience. Come and explore what shows up in your work when you surround yourself with like-minded souls and put yourself in the space for magic to happen.

More info

PS: If you have a partner who loves the mountains, bring them along. They can have a fabulous adventure heli-hiking while you're painting with us!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

You Don't Wanna Miss This (*Note: offer self-destructs May 23rd.)

"Valley of the Lakes" - oil on linen - 10x8" click here to bid

If you've had it on your radar to purchase one of my paintings, now is a fabulous time!

I'm currently making fresh space for a new direction in my art (more on that in a future post), and I've created an unusual and rare opportunity that I'm not planning to offer again.

For two days only, I am offering a selection of my work for sale via eBay auction - with the bids starting at 40% below retail. I'm changing studio locations, and the goal is to move the work on out!

This is a time limited window. The auction is live NOW and ends at 5 pm on Saturday May 23rd. Once it closes the paintings will return to their regular full retail price.

Studio Show

Also on Saturday May 23rd, I'm having a one day only show at my studio from 12pm to 5pm MDT. Come and view the paintings live! We'll have computers set up if you want to place a bid while you're there.

eBay Links

Here's a link to the paintings on eBay.
Here's a link with info on how to bid in an eBay auction.

Because the sales will be handled through eBay auction, you don't need to be in town to purchase one, but if you're local, we'd love to have you come by and say hello!

Feel free to contact me with any questions:

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Painting Wisdom from Jill Carver

6x8" Oil - field study
The scene I was painting. 

I just got back from a fantastic 5 day plein air workshop in Texas with Jill Carver.

I have taken workshops with  some super fabulous painters, but I was especially blown away by this experience. Jill is one of the hardest working, generous, fun, HUGELY knowledgable painters I have studied with - I can't recommend her enough!

In addition to what she brings as a teacher, she created an intensive retreat setting by having us all stay at a ranch together for 5 days (with no other guests). This created an intimacy and depth of shared experience that made for rich conversation and connections that fired up our passion and learning.

Jill and I are very much aligned in our teaching styles - what I loved most about the workshop was that we did many, MANY exercises that built on each other, and were never striving for a finished painting. It was the perfect container to stretch as an artist!

Key Steps to Designing Your Painting

Here's what Jill suggests as the best way to set yourself up for success. Walk through these planning steps, in order, before you start the actual painting:

  1. What is your idea/motif?
  2. What is your focal point?
  3. What are 4-5 key big shapes?
  4. Create a notan (black and white) to define what is in light and what is in shadow
  5. Decide darkest dark and lightest light - and the value spread they cover
  6. See if you can keep the painting to no more than 5 values, and decide how many of those will describe the light, and how many will describe the shadow
  7. Stick to your plan!


She also brings a philosophical perspective to the act of creating paintings (hello soul sister!) - here are some of the greatest gems she shared with us:

As a learner - you aren't going to hear the answers until you have the questions in your mind.

We go outside to be a student of nature, to learn how to see, and to gather ideas.

Don't go outdoors to 'claim' a painting, go out to have an interaction and a conversation with nature, and to receive what it has to share with you.

You're not painting a 'scene', you're painting a singular idea. You're making a personal statement.

If you're not frustrated, you don't care about what you're doing. (Amen)

Don't think of yourself as a journalist, you are a poet.

My Final Studio Workshop

I am lit up from the learning and have all kinds of great new ideas to bring to my students! 

On that note, I have just decided to let go of my Canmore studio (will share more about that soul searching decision in a future post) and will be teaching my LAST local workshop this weekend - April 10-12th. 

There are still a couple of spots left - here are the details if you're interested in coming.

The Bandera gang

Thursday, March 19, 2015

How's the Quality of Your Painting Relationship?

"Snow Dance"
Oil on linen - 24x36"

If you step back and look at your relationship with painting as if it were a partnership with someone that you really cared for - how are you showing up?

Spring is a time of renewal, cleaning out the dust, opening the windows and letting the fresh air in.

What about some spring cleaning for your painting mojo? Could it benefit from a little tune up - or is it perhaps in need of a major overhaul?

Toxic and Constricted 

Here are some warning signs that things are not vibrant and fulfilling. How often are these states of being present in your studio?

  • bored
  • formulaic
  • judgmental (of yourself and/or your painting)
  • in angst
  • agitated by frustration
  • struggling
  • overcoming
  • controlling
  • forcing
  • tight and rigid
  • strongly attached to outcome

Time to lean in and get clear who you're being, and what you want in this relationship. These energies do not support your growth and joy as a painter, but the good news is - you are in charge!

What do you need to do to change it up?

Thriving and Expanding

On the other hand - you may be in the relationship of your dreams! How often do you find yourself in this place in your studio?

  • curious
  • exploring
  • playful
  • open
  • free
  • spacious
  • respectful
  • non-judgmental
  • vulnerable
  • taking risks to stretch and grow
  • fully present and in the moment

If this is you, you are really bringing it in the realm of painting. Bravo! Your heart's all in, the energy's clean - you're good to go!

Upcoming Workshop:

On another note (and it will also help with the spring cleaning! :-), I'm teaching a 3 day workshop in my Canmore studio from April 10-12th. We'll dive in to the key things to focus on in order to to create great design when working from photos. All mediums welcome. More details here.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

"December Violets"
Oil on linen - 8x10"

Merry Christmas you fabulous artsy types!

I recently listened to a speech Daniel Graves (founder and president of the Florence Academy of Art) made to his 2014 graduating class, and I was inspired by his questions so wanted to share them with you:

He started by asking, "What does great art do?" and then gave some cool things to reflect on:

"Think of a painting you think is a great work of art and ask yourself "Why?" i.e.:
  • it inspires me
  • it stimulates me
  • it moves me….
Then ask:

How does it accomplish that? What is different about this work of art? Why do I think this is happening?

There is no wrong answer. Here are some possibilities:
  • technique
  • beauty
  • innovation
  • evocative
Finally, here's the most significant question - a great one to reflect on:

Are you applying what you think makes other art great to your own work?

"Paint your own paintings, don’t be swayed. Have the courage to paint the paintings that you are meant to do, that are uniquely yours. Just do it, no excuses." - Daniel Graves

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a fascinating relationship with painting in 2015!

Friday, August 8, 2014

3 Tips to Make a Boring Plein Air Subject Fun

"Lançon de Provence" - oil on linen - 8x10" - purchase

Here's the scene I was painting from.

Nuthin' to Paint Here

How many times have you gone out to paint plein air and found there was simply nothing that interesting to work from?

I was in Provence in July, and one day my painting companion Kaye and I drove around all day on a quest to find something great to paint. The light was overcast and flat, we didn't know the area at all, and we just kept turning corners and running into underwhelming subject matter.

These times are an opportunity to really tap into your creativity.

A Bit of Inspiration and Full Permission

What I've noticed in choosing subjects, both from life and from photos, is that my gut tells me if there's something there first, and then I start exploring from a technical perspective.

If the volume is turned way down on my gut message, what's needed is a willingness to be in exploration, and full permission to make shit up. You want to use the scene as a jumping off point and then let your creative muse take the ball and run with it.

Get Curious

Roll up your sleeves, put your painter brain on, and look through the the lens of possibility. If you feel even a glimmer of inspiration, ask yourself: "What's here that I can work with?"

In the scene above, here's what I saw that I could push to create interest:
  • lots of depth
  • a zig-zagging pattern of diagonals leading into the distance
  • a warm foreground and cool background
  • a variety of shapes/sizes to arrange in interesting ways
  • a balance of weight on the foreground right answered by the background mountain


Since the scene wasn't especially compelling, I used brushwork and colour in an expressive way to spark my sense of playfulness, and followed where it led. If it seemed like a fun move, I went for it to see where it would go.  

The best thing about a day like this is that there is little expectation of a great outcome. It's an opportunity to just play with paint, letting each brush stroke lead you to the next with no specific end in mind.

"Painting from nature is not copying the object; it's realizing one's sensations." - Paul Cezanne

Upcoming Plein Air Workshop Adventure

Stephen Quiller and I will be co-leading a unique plein air workshop this September. Carrying on the annual tradition that Bob Genn and I created 5 years ago, we are taking a group of painters on a fabulous adventure heli-painting in the Purcell Mountains of BC, Canada. 

The 4 day workshop starts with a full day of plein air instruction in the gorgeous Rockies of Banff, where Stephen and I will be giving 6 hours of hands-on instruction covering all the essential elements  needed in order to get the most out of this 3 day heli-painting experience.

It's a super cool opportunity that will truly flex your plein air painting muscles. You'll fill your tool kit with all kinds of tips and techniques for tackling outdoor painting, and bring home a wealth of great reference material, inspiration and memories.

Follow this link for more details and registration info.

Click the link below to see a mini heli-painting slideshow:
Heli Painting Photos
(Note: You may need to give the page a moment or two to load).

Feel free to contact me directly if you have questions about this trip:
Phone: 403-763-9035

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Farewell to a Master of Painting and Life

Robert Genn painting in the Bugaboos - August 2013

This morning I spent some time resting my hands on two beautiful paintings that were created by my friend and mentor Robert Genn.

I was quietly feeling him in them, sensing how every inch of them held his personality, his expression, his unique way of responding to the world. It was so clear that these paintings are and always will be my direct connection to him, no matter where he is in the Universe.

There are some important truths I learned from Bob in the time he was in my life, and I feel inspired to share them here as a way of honouring and remembering the remarkable being he was.

On Painting

When you are painting a babbling brook - make gurgling, splashing sounds 

One day when we were painting together, Bob came over to help me find my way in a plein air piece. I had the rocks nailed but was struggling with the moving water.

As he placed a few brushstrokes on my painting, he mimicked the dancing, playful sound of the water. He was connecting with the ‘creek-ness’ of the creek, bringing it fully into the painting.

Singing helps, too

I remember painting fairly near to him on a plateau at Lake O’Hara one sunny July afternoon when I heard him start singing to himself “For he’s the jolly good fellow...”  in a quiet, self-entertaining way.

He was completely immersed in an experience of joyful curiosity, in a state of play and wonder, as he explored what was possible between the world in front of him and the world inside of him.

Stop searching and get started 

(A variation of "Go to your room.")

I spent a day painting in a peaceful cove on Gabriola Island with Bob and his constant four-legged companion Dorothy. For the first hour or two, Bob painted while I roamed around with my camera, looking for something that inspired me to paint.

As I returned to where he was painting, Dorothy was anxiously whining about something and I was amused to hear him admonish her. “Dorothy”, he said, “get a hold of yourself.”

He looked up at me from his perch on the beach, surrounded by 4 really good ‘starts’ and a 5th on his easel, and shot me a glance with a wry smile that suggested I also take his advice...

Stop searching, sit, settle. Let the paintings find you.

On Life

Do what feels true for you

Bob wasn’t ruled by what others thought, or ideas about what he ‘should’ do. He did what compelled him, and didn’t do what didn’t. He was an example of how to live an incredibly authentic life.

Stir the pot - It’s where all the good stuff happens 

He was bold enough to ask inflammatory questions and declare controversial opinions. Whenever he put out an especially ‘hot’ letter, I could sense him sitting back and rubbing his hands with gleeful anticipation as soon as he hit send, deeply curious to see what polarized, emotionally charged, lively discussions would ensue.

He believed that contrary opinions made for elevated, interesting conversation, and he was always more than happy to stay and participate in the debates he initiated.

Ask others who they are, what they believe, and why

I saw Bob do this with pretty much every person he met. He knew he would learn something new, and it often created friendship. People were a wonder to him, an adventure, an opportunity to lean in for exploration and discovery.

He was genuinely, absolutely fascinated by human nature - both other’s and his own.

Be generous with your wisdom, influence and time

The first conversation I ever had with Robert was when I was starting out with galleries. I quickly found there were many confliciting policies, opinions and expectations, and I wanted clarity about what was fair for both the artist and the gallery. I decided to make a list of all the questions I had, and call up several professional artists to ask their opinions.

I had never met Robert, but I cold called him in his studio, thinking, “What’s the worst that could happen?” He engaged in conversation with me for more than an hour that day, and so began a friendship that lasted over 15 years.

It was an integral part of his nature to share and be of service, to give a leg up, to get behind anyone he saw was invested in themselves, and to help them get where they were headed.

Be in the vibrant drama of life unfolding - instead of ‘creating’ drama around it

Bob met his diagnosis and the hard reality that came with it head on, with absolute simplicity and clarity. His moments from his diagnosis to his death were spent living fully into them - free of spinning a story about them.

He chose to respond instead of reacting. He brought presence, care and attention to his dying, meeting each moment, right to the end, with skillful intention.

I heard a great Virginia Woolf quote today:
“Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”

Bob arranged his last pieces as powerfully as he arranged brush marks on his canvases. He met this experience in the same way he met every one of his paintings. Rather than focusing on ‘what was’ - he was far more interested in exploring “what could be”.

He was, and continues to be, an inspiration and an incredible gift in my life.

Fare well my friend, I wish you continued fascination and curious exploration as you continue on your journey. xo

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

2 Great Painting Tips from Kevin MacPherson

"Alfred" - underpainting in progress - oil 9x12"
Just got back from a fantastic workshop in San Francisco with Kevin MacPherson. He is not only a masterful painter, he’s a great guy. He is passionate about teaching, lots of fun to learn from, and really knows what he’s talking about. Super worth studying from!

Though most of what he taught was not new to me - it was like taking all the value study work I’ve been doing for the last few years, paring it down even more - and launching from there.

The Power of Black and White

I’ve worked with doing pre-painting value studies before, but always including a midtone. With Kevin, we started every painting by doing a value study of our subject using only black and white to create the pattern that is light, and the pattern that is shadow.

It’s super challenging to simplify to this extent. What’s needed is a big sharpie marker and a willingess to abandon detail in service of design.

Once you feel the sweet spot of this approach, you cross into a new world of possibility. You become liberated from the idea that detail is needed to tell a powerful story.

Photo from Chinatown - San Francisco

Value study of above Chinatown photo

The Essential Truth About Light and Shadow

Once you begin painting, the trick is to move back in the other direction without going too far.

The biggest thing I got from Kevin was this: the way to preserve the compelling design you just created is to honor a fundamental truth. White in shadow is darker than black in light. Everything builds on that, no crossing the line.

You can deepen your comprehension of this principle by putting a piece of white and black cloth side by side in a direct light source - sunny window for example, and then casting a shadow across them. Now squint down and compare the values and you’ll see it. I've posted a photo as an example, but it’s great learning to do this yourself and see it live.

Cover everything except the white in shadow and the black in light and squint. You'll see that the black in light is lighter than the white in shadow.

What to Consider As You Bring Color Back In

The next thing is to decide if your painting is about the light or the shadow. A good place to explore when considering this is to ask which takes up the larger part of your picture plane.

Once you decide if the light or the shadow will be the star player - put your richest colour there.

If it is the shadow, then you have to create enough light in it to see the colour, which means you need to add a lot of white to your lights (to keep them lighter than the shadow) - and adding that white will be at the expense of pure colour.

On the other hand, if it is in the light where you want to have your richest colour, you will have to darken the darks to get the shadow family where it belongs, again at the expense of rich colour.

"Doorway" - underpainting in progress - oil 12x9"

Try this approach, stay out of the weeds of detail, and see what happens when you let strong design and skillful use of color become a foundation of your work.

Photo reference for "Alfred" painting at the top of the post.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Co-creating With Robert Genn: What's Next for Heli-Painting

"The Bugaboos Spires"
Oil on linen - 6x8"

In September 2010, Robert Genn and I taught an inaugural plein air workshop in the Bugaboos. We used the helicopter to lift us quickly to high, stunning vantages. It was a life changing and unique painting experience for everyone involved, and we all returned home with records of time spent in very sacred, magical places.

In 2013 we completed our 4th annual trip, and each year it has gained in popularity. Heli-painting is a rewarding and challenging experience that can’t help but grow you as a painter - it has become a “bucket list” opportunity for adventurous artists looking to expand their range while connecting with like minded souls.

Taking A Hard Right

Shortly after our 2013 trip, Robert was diagnosed with cancer. As many of you who follow his blog The Painters Keys know - he is meeting his diagnosis with remarkable grace, and a surprisingly pragmatic attitude to getting on with things.

I spent a few hours with him in his studio when I was in Vancouver this January. For most of our visit he reclined in a comfortable chair in his studio, working away on a painting. It was so obviously a form of meditation for him, a way of staying present in the moment, of navigating his new reality while staying connected with one of his greatest passions in life.

Over the course of our friendship Bob has been an inspiration to me in many ways. Observing how he is meeting this experience has taken that to whole new level.

I watched as his assistant, his son, and voices from the outer world all kept checking in, interrupting his sacred space to get input on the unfolding tasks of getting and keeping his affairs in order. He would pause to address what was needed, and then return to his painting and our visit. He is clearly choosing peace, acceptance, and a commitment to living now - not in past or future.

Where We’re Going From Here

We discussed at length what direction we wanted heli-painting to take going forward, and determined that we both felt strongly it was a distinctive workshop experience that should continue.

We considered what artists might best complement the kind of teaching and painting experience we have created, and for 2014 we have invited Stephen Quiller to co-instruct. Stephen is a very accomplished studio and plein air artist who has taught painting to hundreds of students. He has developed a proven approach for creating transformative shifts in the students he works with.

Stephen and I taught together on Salt Spring Island in September of 2012. He is incredibly laid back, extremely articulate and infinitely generous with his wealth of knowledge. Our intention is to continue to share with you a remarkable, trip of a lifetime painting experience.

If you’d like to join us next year – please click here for full details and booking information.

Click here to view a Heli-painting photo album

Monday, February 24, 2014

Diving Head First Into "Wrong"

Oil on linen - 8x10"
purchase info

What kind of relationship do you have with getting it wrong? Does it feel like it's something to be avoided altogether, or resisted after the fact?

It can be so compelling to edit in advance, to deny our creative urges, to not take risks in order to avoid potentially making a mess. There are moments when fear of screwing things up can be almost paralyzing. (Think: painting that's 3/4's done and working.)

On the other hand, it's tempting to beat ourselves up when we do act and then decide what we did was stupid or a mistake. (Think: painting was working, and you just killed it.)

If we decide killing the painting was a bad thing, we start to reinforce our tendency to act with caution in future paintings. Our focus shifts toward painting "successful" paintings instead of exploring 'what might be' from the beginning to the end of the painting process. It becomes an ongoing cycle of painting timidly in order to edit all risk out of the painting process.

Stay in the Game and Keep Shooting

Through a lot of trial and error, I've come to the realization that getting it wrong is not the problem, it's our interpretation of it that sends us into the ditch.

A great metaphor for this is a basketball game. Can you imagine only taking shots if you were sure they were going to go in? Or if every time you missed a shot you started telling yourself a story about how much you suck, how you should be better than you are, how you shouldn't be on the team? Every time you do this, you are effectively benching yourself.

The point isn't to have every shot go in, it's to stay in the game and keep playing.

What's Right With Wrong

So what about a reframe. What if wrong is a magical, essential part of the creative process unfolding? Yes, you may have killed the painting. And you may have no idea how you did that. Even so, every wrong stroke was information - rich, juicy, creative feedback for your soul. Wrong is always valuable information about what 'not right' is.

Trust that you know more now than you did before, even if you don't know what it is that you know. Your cells know. The space knows. There's important data on the hard drive that wouldn't be there if you had held back and been unwilling to step into scary land.

You don't get better by developing a shot that works and then taking that same shot over and over. You rise to the top of your game by taking shots from every possible angle, expanding your range, not caring about 'wrong' or 'failing', and trusting everything is information to create from.

Wrong is a necessary part of getting to right, in painting and in every area of our lives. The more we choose to befriend it, the faster we can integrate the value of it - and get on with the game.

PS: Huge shout out to reader Roxanne Tongco for reaching out to connect - and calling me forth to get my butt in the seat and write a long overdue blog post. This one's for you!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Using Vivid Colour to Flex Your Value Muscle

"Red on Red"
Oil on Canvas - 6x6"

(*Note - all proceeds from the sale of this painting will go to Typhoon Relief in the Philippines. These funds will be matched equally by the Canadian Government, so you'll get an awesome new painting and do a whole lot of good at the same time!)

Dive In to Some Serious 'Seeing' Bootcamp

One way to build your skill at seeing value is to paint your subject with a palette that is limited to varying shades of grey. Another is to paint it in colour and then use a photo to check out how you did in black and white, as in the example above.

Choosing a subject to work from that is monochromatic and colourful is a powerful way you can challenge yourself to represent value accurately in your paintings, and it works an extra muscle at the same time. You're not just challenged to see value, but to mix the nuances of it correctly in one colour. This throws a whole new ball in the air.

Play With Creative Combinations

Try this exercise with every colour in the wheel. (Wait 'til you get to yellow on yellow - seriously tough one.) Then photograph your paintings and turn them into black and white to see how you did. This will tell you immediately if you've nailed your values or not.  If it reads, you have taken another step forward in learning how to see value in colour - and bonus, you have a cool painting! If not, you have some info about where you need to keep working. :-)

I am a huge believer in carving out time in our painting world that is solely dedicated to working on skills, with no attachment to outcome. It is not enough to just paint a lot of paintings, it's important to focus on our weaknesses if we want to become really skillful. Keeping an eye on intentionally working with them is dedicating yourself to mastery, and it can't help but show over time.

Painting is easy. Painting well is not - don't forget to eat your veggies you amazing artistic souls!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Essential Requirements of a Creative State

"Glacial Tarn - the Bugaboos"
Oil on linen - 8x10"
purchase info

How connected are you with your creativity?

Once one gets past the idea that creativity is a thing only some of us are gifted with (the truth is if you are alive, you are creative) - we arrive in the land of how to best tap into our creativity.

I recently listened to a brilliant talk on this topic by John Cleese. (I've shared the link below, well worth a listen.)

Open vs. Closed

What I loved most about John's talk was what he refers to as 'open' and 'closed' states. In order for us to achieve anything of value, both of these states are necessary, but we can only be in one or the other at any given time.

The objective is to learn how to dance in and out of them skillfully, intuitively knowing which moment requires which state.

Work Time - Getting It Done

The 'closed' state is about execution. It has a narrow focus.
  • It is about getting on with it. 
  • It is action oriented and purposeful. 
  • There is not much humor or lightness in this state. 
  • It has tension, and sometimes an anxious, impatient quality which can be exciting and pleasurable.
  • It is a bit manic.
  • In the closed mode, information that we weren't looking for is considered irrelevant.
His most important point is that while the closed state is essential - there's no room for creativity here. Which brings us to the place where creativity thrives, the open state.

Play Time - Letting it Find You

The 'open' state is about the opposite of execution. It has a wider perspective.
  • It is about being less purposeful and more expansive.
  • It's relaxed and contemplative. 
  • It is playful and explorative. 
  • It asks the question - what is there to discover in this moment? 
  • It is completely free of the pressure to get somewhere - not at all outcome focused.
  • In the open mode, information we weren't looking for is a clue, something to be curious about.
With regard to painting - I think the most relevant point John makes is that the confidence for being creative comes from knowing that while you're being creative - nothing is allowed to be 'wrong'. Everything that happens is fascinating.

"You can't be playful and curious if you're frightened that moving in some direction may be a mistake. You're either free to play or you're not."

Integration - Making Room for Both

Here are some ways I have found to weave the open state into the closed 'execution' state:
    • Choose subjects that make you ask, "What's possible?" It's not about how to best copy what's there - it's about stirring up the artist in you. What moves you about the subject? What do you uniquely have to say about it?
    • When working from photos, play with the reference a lot before diving in. Try cropping it in different ways, use filters in photo editing software to create different effects and see what gets triggered in you. Throw a bunch of stuff at the photo and pay attention to your gut responses.
    • Once you are into the painting, get back from it often. It is easy to get sucked into the 'doing' and forget to create space for your muse to offer input. We need that contemplative distance to connect with what's wanting to happen as the painting unfolds. This is not a place of knowing, it's a place of listening.
    • When you're stuck, instead of worrying that a wrong move might wreck the painting, just try something. Be spontaneous, throw a brush stroke down, wipe out something that doesn't feel right to create room for something else. 
    "Painting is a process of discovery. Trial and error. A search for self."
    I can't remember where I found this quote, but it's hanging in my studio and on especially smart days I remember to reflect on it.

    Finding a Balance That Works For You

    I think many of us spend a disproportionate amount of time in the closed state - brush to canvas, getting paintings 'done'. As John puts it, "Too often we are stuck in the closed mode because we are addicted to action and outcome."

    My quest in my painting life for the past 2 years has been to turn this around, because it simply stopped making sense to me as an artist to spend more time in production than creativity, and that's what was happening.

    As I stepped away from painting to contemplate what felt true for me, I wasn't sure what I would find, I just knew that what I was doing wasn't bringing me joy and something had to change.

    My current goal is to have the creative state be where the disproportionate amount of my time is spent. What's needed for this is freedom from self-imposed external pressure, full permission to explore in my work, and trust that this will lead me where I'm meant to go.

    Your Wisdom

    Many artists find ways to keep up with commercial output and still spend much of their time in a creative mode - the open state. I applaud them! I'd love to hear your comments on how you manage this balance in your work.

    John Cleese video:

    *Please note - if you are viewing this in your email program you may not be able to see the video. Simply click on the blog title at the top of the email to take you directly to my blog where the video will be enabled.

    Friday, August 30, 2013

    Wild Mountain Painting

    "Looking Out" - oil on linen - 6x8" (sold)

    Just back from our 4th annual Heli-Painting adventure in the Bugaboo Mountains of BC.

    Each year Robert Genn and I, along with his amazing daughter Sara, co-lead a plein air workshop in one of the most visually spectacular places on earth. This year we had 15 students ambitious enough to brave the elements and get to work in an environment that calls forth tenacity, determination, and a willingness to stretch in service of artistic growth.

    Bob doing a demo with Bugaboo Spire in the background.

    The more I paint plein air, the more I realize that the gift is not in striving to take home a painting that matches what you saw, but rather to be present for the experience of connecting with what you're seeing, and expressing what is true for you about it in the moment.

    When you add in sharing the company of like-minded souls immersed in the creative process together in a sacred place - it is as high quality a life experience as one can have.

    Thanks to the gang of 2013 - it was a great pleasure to paint with you in this wild mountain sanctuary!

    Hunkered down with Robert in a cozy shelter.

    "Looking Out" - detail

    I love playing with the combination of transparent darks and thick opaque lights to create interest on the painting surface. I find oil-primed linen allows me to get the most from this approach due to it's non-absorbency and organic, irregular weave.

    Raymar Art offers an incredibly light 1/16" thin panel which is ideal for plein air work. Here's a link to the panels I use.

    Stay tuned for an upcoming post with a link to a photo essay of this year's heli-painting adventure.