holed up and playing with paint



15 minutes

love folly

mark making

WIP ♥lovefolly♥

lovefolly WIP

Customs rang yesterday morning, which was very nice of them. They’d spoken to Kris the night before. He’s 450 miles from Darwin, sort of backtracking because the poor winds sent him down on level with the Kimberleys. I’m hoping it’ll take him between 5 and 7 days to get here, as the monsoon trough still hasn’t established itself properly. The Customs officer said, “He said to tell you he’s happy.” Not safe. Not well. Happy. I had to chuckle at the message Kris sent through him.

A small painting came after that phone call. What can I say? That I am more affected by my emotions than I would like to admit? “Love is the wisdom of the fool, and the folly of the wise.” (Samuel Johnson)

So did I paint something?

Yeah, I did actually get up the next morning and start a painting. I was all revved up and hungry to create!

What I craved was a HUGE canvas…a meter wide, a meter and a half tall, that sort of thing…a wall that I could walk up to and engage, throw myself at, mano a mano…arms moving in great sweeping arcs of brushstrokes. Looked everywhere on the boat…was so sure I had some huge canvases left over from my last show. Nothing.


What I found were scores of tiny little canvases…mostly the size of a paperback book…and one, just one, tall, skinny canvas—30 cm wide, and 60 cm. high. (1′ x 2′). Oh, that’s right…instead of buying one wonderful, epic canvas for $30, I thought I’d be clever and buy 10 dinky little ones for the same price. Fool. So much for my grand date with creative destiny. I felt so restricted and cramped with this small canvas! My sweeping gestures were reduced to finger-daubing and dabbing with medium-sized brushes.


And the process? Hrrm. Well. I started out the way Downey did in her video…all energetic abstract doodles and splodges of color. I even hit a few spots with water in a spray bottle to make the paint run. Drips. Very outré, drips in paintings, oh my. Yes, yes, everything was feeling very loose, very spontaneous, very earth goddess, moon mother, loose caftans and jangly earrings. There were lots of fantastic body gestures…it was almost a modern interpretive dance. I even played the one song I own that is by Loreena McKennit, can you imagine? Instead of my usual Radiohead, The White Stripes, The Commodores, and One Love Sonic Boom mixes.

Great. Then I started painting in some simple motifs…leaves (ovals with one pointy end) and flowers (ovals with pointy one end), birds (ovals with one pointy end and a tail like a platypus bill), sprinkles of dots and organic shapes sort of thing. Get this, I even flicked runny paint at the canvas, a la angry young men in movies about artists (then “Eep!” Wiped most of it off again.) Art? Who said anything about making art? I was acting out the artist stereotype. I was being ‘creative’. To anyone who may have been watching, I was also being a wanker.

No actual attempts to draw anything or produce something skillfully. No attempts to find a symbol or a subject that actually meant something. It occurred to me that the motifs that came easily to mind were very hackneyed. (That must be why they came so easily to mind, Einstein.) At this point I started to feel like a fraud. Lotus flowers, are you fucking kidding me? Lily pads? What has this painting got to do with me? Do I sound like a Southeast Asian Buddhist to you?

And the painting, ye gods. Did I really channel the aesthetics of the entire Balinese Airport Artists Cooperative? This looks like the stuff they churn out in Thailand to decorate restaurants with. I’m amazed there aren’t any koi in the pond under the lily pads, or bare-breasted women in those pointy golden pagoda hats. “WHAT, NO KOI? Can’t be a proper Asian restaurant painting without the koi! People need something to look at while they’re slurping their tom yums and pad thais!”

Traditional Thai art paintings
Traditional Thai art paintings

But I have chosen to leave the painting alone. May it serve as a lesson to me…what works for others may does not work for me, and shame on me for letting someone else’s style bear too heavily upon my own.

The result may look okay to you, reading this, but believe me, the painting is empty, devoid of soul or self. It’s a lie. Just because it’s an okay-looking lie doesn’t make it right. The paintings of a large molar and two chairs were more honest than this. At least they came from my own head, and weren’t trying to please anybody. I’m going to let Donna Downey’s wonderful video cool off in my head for a while, then I’m looking forward to another session—I’m still inspired by her video!—this time just being myself…don’t matter if it’s fugly. At least it’ll be my own. Kinda like having an ugly child, I guess. :D

First encounter with anamorphosis

It was one of those tired evenings after work; I came home to a cranky cat and dinner alone (Kris is still out there, somewhere, sailing) and I wanted to do some small creative thing to cheer myself up.

Thought, “I might paint something.”

I took a small canvas, and attempted to splash and drip a base layer of bright happy colors all over it. It didn’t look like anything much when I’d done, and somehow the colors had gone all pastel and sickly looking. This always happens when I haven’t worked with color for a long time…it’s like I have to re-learn what works, what doesn’t, and how to make the paint do what I want it to. Getting rusty. :(

Mood had sunk even lower by this time. I sank deeper into my chair, chewing on my fag end, eyeing the bottle of acrylic ink that was sitting on top of the canvas on the desk before, and a thought about those street artists who draw amazing, 3D images on the sidewalks, popped up.

I’ve looked these anamorphic drawings up before, and have seen some tutorials on Youtube, mostly using grids on Photoshop to distort an image, or a webcam to flatten the image to a single-point perspective.

I wondered if I could do a small anamorphic painting without those aids or gimmicks? Like, what if I just shut one eye (so that what I saw was from a single-point perspective), kept my eyes at the same level as I drew, stretched my pencil hand out in front of me, and tried to get the pencil lines to evoke the ink bottle from that one perspective.

anamorphic first attempt

The pencil drawing itself didn’t look like anything, but as I started to paint in the shape (still sitting low down and back from the canvas, with my arm stretched out) a little bit of that 3D-ness started to creep in.

anamorphic first attempt

By the time I got to the point you see in these pictures, it was 2 a.m…EEP! The picture above, even with such a sketchily done painting of the bottle, looks much more convincing, because this is the lighting I painted it by, and the shadows/highlights of everything else on the desk around are bathed in the same light.

The pictures below were taken the next day, in sunlight…the illusion is less convincing because the slant of light, the shadows (or lack of shadows) and subtle messages the eye sends the brain are telling you that something is not right.

anamorphic 4

anamorphic first attempt

Here’s what the painting looks like, when viewed straight on. I haven’t finished the painting, yet, but even when viewed from the correct perspective I can see that I haven’t made the black rubber dropper bit at the top long enough. But I’m definitely going to be playing a bit more with this tricksy sort of painting, it’s heaps of fun!

anamorphic first attempt

Copper plate books

Leontopontes, plate and print

More unusual journals by my best and most enduring bookbinding student…

Once Kris made up his mind to use these old engraved copper printing plates as book covers, he knocked them out at alarming speed over one weekend. I think it’s a great way to use a printing plate at the end of an edition (or after you’ve decided you don’t want to be a printer, anymore, in Kris’ case).

The story of our adventures with printing is amazing, in itself. I know a little bit about printing, which is probably a hindrance rather than a help, because I believe that to do things properly you have to have all the right tools, materials, and the know-how to tweak a hundred little complicated and technical settings…

Kris knew nothing whatsoever about engraving copper plate, or printing from those plates, and so he just jumped in and did it. He used an old copper water tank that he cut up and flattened with a hammer (I helped by telling him that he couldn’t print on anything but perfectly flat, smooth, new plate); then we went to print and didn’t have any of the additives for the ink, nor whiting, nor tarlatan to clean the plate…didn’t even know in what order the plate, paper, and blanket were supposed to be when we rolled the sandwich through the huge old press at the Darwin Visual Arts Association.

I was ignorant, worried, narrow-minded and a naysayer…while Kris was determined, untroubled, innocent and had a great time rolling out half a dozen designs all that afternoon, clear and charming prints, in spite of all that we did wrong. Since then I’ve become a little more like him…I still like the idea of new things bought just for the purpose; like the idea of doing it “by the book”. But if I can’t do it the ‘right’ way, I know better than to let that stop me from doing anything at all. So he is also my best and most enduring teacher.

– – – – –

Like the mother of pearl and the wooden journals, these are going into Kris’ exhibition/book launch on the first of February, next year. Where an actual print has survived, he’s going to include it with the sale of its copperplate journal.

More copper-covered books over on his blog…

Copper plate books.

über embroiderer : ana teresa barboza

by ana teresa barboza | embroidery on fabric

It’s been a long time since I scoured the internet for an über embroiderer. I think it’s because I’m reluctant to have this blog turn into some kind of curatorial mirror of other people’s work…just another ‘pin board’ that raves about the same things that other blogs do, pulling in creative ideas from elsewhere and not producing anything original of its own.

But Ana Teresa Barboza’s embroidered pieces were too good to pass by. Wish I could say I found them myself, but I’m not really that keen a surfer—the hours one must devote to combing blogs and sites for ‘material’ are, to me, better spent making something with my own hands; so I was alerted to these fantastic embroideries of Barboza by The Artful Desperado, whose far more cutting-edge blog undoubtedly lives with its fingers on the pulse of art and design.

Once again, amazing work coming from South America (judging by her CV, Barboza is Peruvian)…and this really makes me wonder how many more über embroiderers (and artists of other disciplines) doing really fresh, incredible things, are missed because they don’t turn up in, say, the first 20 search results of an english-language search engine. There must be hundreds. South America is really starting to look like a kind of petri dish for creativity and new approaches to art, craft, design. But one almost has to be there, immersed in the cities where they work, as well as in the language, to discover them.

Kris and I are moving to S.America in two years’ time, and I have been making notes of all these artists and projects and places that I would like to meet/visit in preparation for that time. It’s getting so that I can hardly contain myself, I want to go now, now, NOW! (But wait, need to earn some money, first, so maybe it’s time to wrap up this post and get back to work!)

by ana teresa barboza | embroidery and fabrics

by ana teresa barboza | graphite and embroidery on cloth

Much more to see on her blog so be sure to pay a visit. I only went two or three pages deep…who knows what treasures hide in the archives of Barboza’s posts!

A dozen paintings and a playlist

Process is nothing. Erase your path. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs. I hope you will toss it all, and not look back.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Here are the twelve paintings I did for my show, together in one post, at long last (a week later!)

No pictures of the show itself, or the guests, because there was no photographer present. There’s no way that I could have done it, I was so busy just trying to have a word with everyone present that I unintentionally neglected my own friends (who were good enough to come and entertain themselves, and then leave without making a fuss.) David went home to his blog and wrote a post about the show on the very same night! Which puts me to shame, as I didn’t manage to do that, myself. I must say, there certainly was a good turnout, thanks to the big group show (16 artists) that opened simultaneously in the large gallery next to my ‘intimate’ little room.

Six days later, and I am deep into other things already…

(WordPress introduced their photo gallery feature just in time! Click on a thumbnail to view the whole gallery in a scrolling format)

Looking back on the paintings themselves with a calm and detached eye, I can honestly say that the process was more rewarding than the finished product. And that’s exactly as it should be, because I have never done anything like try to paint several works for a show before, and could not expect to make ‘amazing’ work just like that. Painting these, I was acutely aware of my ignorance—not just of the technical skills necessary to manipulate paint or treat a figure—but also my ignorance of what it is about painting that makes it come alive, what is that elusive kernel that drove (and still drives painters) to pursue this craft all their lives?

Like any art, you start out and it’s all about you, and all about pretty, and all about being liked, and all about trying to make things look realistic…the slavish reproduction of objects and faces around you; that’s fine, but it’s called ‘early work’ and is only valuable in a poignant way. It’s not seriously any good, but you have to go through that shit and come out the other end, and then maybe you will make something good.

I’ve recently read Annie Dillard‘s The Writing Life, and many of the things she says about a writer’s life are true about any artist’s life. Things can be split into two piles: The Good and The Bad. It is essential to a writer who wants to rise to a level of serious mastery and worth, to be able to tell one from the other. There are no greys, even though there might be small parts of really good writing in a sea of bad writing. Dillard relates a story about a photographer who worshiped the work of a certain master, and wanted to learn how to take photographs the way this master did. Every year, he took a selection of his best work to the senior photographer, and asked him to go through it. Every year, the old man divided the work into two piles: good and bad. There was a particular photograph, a landscape, that the master put into the bad pile. The next year, the same photograph appeared again; again he put it in the bad pile. This went on for a few years. Finally the master asked the young photographer, “Every year you bring this photograph, and every year I put it in the bad pile. Yet you keep bringing it back. Why do you like it so much?” To which the young man stammered, “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.” Again, from Annie Dillard’s book:

How many books do we read from which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical cord? How many gifts do we open from which the writer neglected to remove the price tag? Is it pertinent? Is it courteous, for us to learn what it cost the writer, personally?

The moral? Your finished work must stand alone in the world. You will not always be around to hold its hand and tell the touching story of how you made it. The process is important to you, yes, because you learn from process…but the process doesn’t matter in the least to the finished work, or to the other people who will view or experience your work. Sever the umbilical cord to your work. You may be an emotional and loving person, and may be emotionally and lovingly attached to your own life (well, I hope you are, anyway) but don’t burden your work with that. It doesn’t cross over well. Your work is either good, or bad, and if it’s bad (i.e. mediocre, self-centered, naive, empty, shallow, banal), banish it from your life (not without gratitude and a certain amount of introspection, certainly you needn’t hate it…but be firm) and go out there and do it again, and again, and again, until you get it right. Until it unmistakably, unquestionably belongs in the Good pile.

Friends have protested when I told them this. They think my work is “wonderful” (whatever that means). Okay, fine, but that doesn’t tell me anything about the work, though it tells me a lot about my friends. Do they reserve a special criterion for works by friends like me—because they want to encourage and cheer me up—as opposed to the critical appreciation they show works by Dali or Drysdale? How can someone who likes Matisse or thinks Goya is “wonderful” then turn to me and tell me they think my work is “wonderful” as well? I mean, you’re really a lovely person, but be serious, will you?

Your friendship and well-meant sentiments are cherished, but your art criticism is not. You do not care whether I fail or succeed…you will probably love me, anyway. But that doesn’t help me. Honesty helps me. It will help me to get better…or even help me to finally see that I may never be anything but a so-so painter. So that I can then decide whether to spend more years (and the years are flying by, the funnel narrows, the opportunities to do something else, and get any good at it, are dwindling) trying to get something right, or acknowledge that my paintings will never be any good and that the years might be better spent doing something else.

No, I’m not giving up just yet…stupid to stop after one’s just begun! There are bits in these paintings that have something…very small areas, here and there, something honest and raw and true. Even I see them. But that is not enough…the price tag is bigger than the gift, right now. This whole show is just that…a visual representation of what the effort cost me. I had to climb a mountain to get it. When the show ends, I won’t keep the ones that didn’t sell, to rot in the bilges of a boat, to live on singing mediocre hosannas to the novice painter that created them. I will, most likely, paint some over, and cut others up for book covers, and erase my tracks, and not look back. The only way I can possible move is forward.

The show came with a playlist on cd, because music played such an important role while I was painting. I wish I could include some sort of player on here, but my blog is limited, and I am in a hurry to post this, before even the strong emotions about the show’s aftermath fade away and I don’t feel anything but weary of the paintings:

  • Profile of The Artist:                     Do You Swear To Tell The Truth The Whole Truth And Nothing But The Truth So Help Your Black Ass     •     Amanda Palmer
  • They were an Irish bunch…         Anti-Pioneer  •     Feist     •     Metals

Dirty Old Town     •     The Pogues     •     Rum Sodomy & The Lash

  • Reading Monsoon Dervish         The Pirate’s Bride     •     Sting     •     Symphonicities
  • Lady Kitsune                                  Foxy Lady     •     The Cure     •     Three Imaginary Boys (Deluxe Edition)
  • Smoke Reality                                Smoke Reality     •     The Naysayer     •     Smoke Reality
  • Birdhouse In Your Soul              Birdhouse In Your Soul     •     They Might Be Giants     •    
  • The Sulking Chair                        The Perfect Girl     •     The Cure     •     Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
  • Crying Like A Cat                         Edna St. Vincent Millay     •     Beth Lodge-Rigal     •     Children On a Ride
  • Debussy                                           The Holy Egoism of Genius      •     Art of Noise     •     The Seduction of Claude Debussy
  • Senbazuru                                       Princess Mononoke     •     Marco and his friends     •     World of Miyazaki Hayao (Koto and Shakuhachi Duo)

Because the Origami     •     8in8     •     The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective

  • Pyromanicat                                   Stray Cat Blues      •     The Rolling Stones     •     Beggars Banquet
  • Mitzi                                                 Ragtime Cat      •     Parov Stelar     •     Coco, Pt. 2
  • Ton Katze                                        Morph the Cat     •     Donald Fagen     •     Morph the Cat
  • Afterword                                       Chromolume #7 / Putting It Together     •     Stephen Sondheim     •     Sunday In The Park With George

Growing up with the right values…

A dancing fox spirit in form of a woman...
Fox Spirit

Color in a painting has tremendous emotional impact…I love using colors, so much that often all I can see is the dazzling juxtaposition of color—wanting to use them all…wanting that vermillion to sit and glow beside a deep bluish green, enjoying the way a reddish gold pulsates next to a stormy Payne’s gray—and forget to take care of my values.

Values are the spectrum of light to dark in a painting. It is the use of different values that gives an object in a painting its form, its depth, its solidity…not colors. To see this at work, open a photograph in a photo editing program, and turn the color saturation up to 100%. The result is painful to the eyes. With every color saturated and glowing brilliantly, the solidity and form of the painting recedes.

It’s important to remember that every tube of paint has a value…dark red and dark green may be on opposite ends of the color spectrum, but in terms of value they are both on the very dark end of the value scale. Too many colors of the same value will result in a heavy, uniform, rather lifeless and shapeless painting…and often, because the colors themselves are so different from one another, you won’t be able to see or understand why your painting seems so flat, so “washed out” or “dark” or “leaden”. Our eyes often become so overwhelmed by the interplay of colors that we become unable to accurately identify their values.
color oversaturation

Now desaturate the image all the way to black and white. Even without color, it’s easy to identify shape and form in the photograph. It still works. So if my initial pencil drawings (with paper standing in for lights, some sort of wash to indicate greys, and a heavy marking for the darks) don’t look balanced or clear, there isn’t much chance that adding color will ‘fix’ things. If anything, it’ll just make the illustration more confusing. A good thing to bear in mind. It pays to make thorough grayscale studies, if you’re in a hurry or don’t like scrubbing back, covering over, and strating from scratch too often.


I’ve started using a quick way to keep tabs on my values as I paint. I take my simple point-and-shoot camera, set it to black and white, and take a photo at every stage of the painting. You could then upload to a laptop for viewing, though I usually don’t bother…the viewing screen on the back of most Canon cameras (even the el cheapo ones) is usually big enough to look at the shot straight off. This allows me to keep an eye on what my values are doing. I can see right away if my painting is starting to get an allover dark treatment, if my subject is slowly disappearing into the background behind her with every burnt umber glaze I give her. I can see where a light outline might be necessary, or something needs to be brought back up to a lighter shade. I can also immediately see whether the way I have applied highlights and shadows to the subject makes it real, makes it solid, or if I have gone and put different shadows in all the wrong places, so that the light doesn’t actually come from one source, as it probably should. But even when I am not trying to paint realistically

—because painting is not about copying objects in the world so accurately that “it looks just like a photograph”…bah, what do you think a camera is for, then? Before the camera, sure, people wanted a way to document their lives, their wealth, their surrounds, and painters did that for them…but now that cameras are as common as sinks, painting has been freed from that slavish documentary role, and can finally exist for its own sake. Folks who think that ‘realistic’ determines whether a painting or drawing is good or not should go back to mowing the lawn or watching Find My family, and leave art alone. Rant over.—

…I keep an eye on values for the liveliness and movement within the painting. A dynamic balance of lights and darks, quietly leading the eye from one part of the painting to another, can give it that energy. Think Jackson Pollock. You could accidentally tip forward into one of his paintings, and might be falling forever…there’s so much space behind, inside his paintings.

All of which real painters know, and I’m not a real painter, so forgive me if I presume to spout off about some basic knowledge that I, myself, have only just stumbled upon. But if I didn’t know it before, maybe someone else will find it new, too. And these things can apply to any art or design that involves form and color…embroidery, for example. Not everything I’ve done was checked for values, and I still went ahead and made a ton of mistakes, even knowing about ‘the values thing’…like I can see in this painting that her big blooming rose of a head is the same value as the background wall…and her yellow skirt could have been a little lighter, or patterned to stand out from the background some more, too. I might make a few minor changes, but time’s a’flying, so I can only hope the next painting will be better.