Art, Influence, and Lovecraft (a few of my favorite things)

As artists, we all compare ourselves, whether consciously or not, to other artists. To a certain degree, this cannot be helped and is indeed quite normal and to be expected. On the other hand, when such comparison goes too far, we can be plagued with self doubt and feelings of inadequacy. I’m sure thoughts such as “I’ll never be as good as so and so” are familiar to us all. This leads to the question of influence. How to maintain a proper relationship to the work of artists that influence our own is something we all struggle with from time to time.

As some of you may know, I greatly admire the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. For nearly 30 years now, his stories, essays, and increasingly his letters, have been for me an endlessly fascinating font of truly amazing levels of imagination, erudition, and insight. For those of you unfamiliar with Lovecraft, he was an American author of weird fiction (popularly known as horror) active in the 1920s and 30s. He developed the sub genre now known as cosmic horror, in which the insignificance of the human race is played against the backdrop of a vast, indifferent universe. Additionally, he wrote numerous essays, primarily during his lengthy association with the amateur press movement, as well as tens of thousands of letters.

In reading the recently published “Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw” (Hippocampus Press, 2014), I came by this lengthy passage in a letter to Toldridge, a Washington D.C. based poet, in which Lovecraft speaks to this question of comparison and influence. In this letter, he is discussing the art of writing, but the same points can be applied to the visual arts as well. All italics are Lovecraft’s.

“It would be a great mistake to become overawed by the perfection of the best writers, or to allow their modes of utterance to influence one’s own style unduly. Each person has a style of his own which is natural to him, & his business as a poet is simply to sing what is in him in his own way – without paying any attention to what others have done before him. The world is full of things both naturally great & naturally small, & the existence of the greater does not in any way detract form the value of the lesser in its own field. My fiction can’t be compared with Poe’s or Machen’s, but I take no less pleasure in writing it on that account. The masters of art are not to ‘bow down before’, but to enjoy rationally & with a proper appreciation. They influence one best when he tries least to be influenced – & the best kind of stimulus they give is a subtle & imperceptible sort which makes the novice do better in his own way rather than reflect their moods, subject-matter, & mannerisms. There is no need of indulging in the emotional attitude of humility merely because one does not attain the standard of the eminent. Far wiser it is to regard one’s relative insignificance as simply an impersonal fact – which has no bearing on one’s modest and spontaneous efforts at self-expression”.

Several months later, he writes the following to the same correspondent.

“The best way to write real poetry is not to care whether you write it or not – to banish such ulterior objects as fame or approval of the world from consideration & pay attention only to the moods or images you record. To my mind, the prime essential of aesthetic effort is to repudiate mankind & the world, & stand alone in the cosmos, face to face with the revelation of beauty which one desires to crystallize & perpetuate.”

I for one find this to be very sound advice. I think this resonates with me so strongly because I have had this very experience with my own work. When looking too closely at the work of an artist I admire, I find that my own efforts almost invariably suffer as a result. First, I want to do what the master in question has done, but then I start thinking that my work can’t look too much like his or it will be seen as too derivative. This often leads to a downward spiral of over-conscious effort in which the creative process is short circuited to the point of ineffectiveness. Fortunately, over the years, I’ve gotten better at not letting this happen.  When I simply express what is in me, bringing all my skills and sensibilities to bear as best I can, the results are almost always favorable.

Lovecraft’s words strike me as a more eloquent way of stating the often heard phrase, “do what you love”, regardless of what the world may think. If, as creative people, we express what is in us in the most genuine way we know how, then we will have done our job as artists.

I welcome your thoughts on this.

Trying something a little different.

In my last blog post, I detailed the process of creation for a piece called “Hope in a Hopeless Place.  I mentioned that I usually do two preparatory drawings, one in graphite, the other in color pastels.  I continued this for my newest series of paintings with one small twist.  Instead of doing the color drawing in pastels, I simply imported images of my graphite drawings into Photoshop and added color to them.  I used what I like to call a ‘fuzzy” brush and set the opacity of the color to 19%.  This nicely simulates the thin, glazes I plan to use during the beginning stages of the paintings.  Doing this allowed me to quickly establish which colors I’ll use in the actual paintings.  It was fun, quick, and no chalky mess to clean up!  Here are a few side by side shots of the graphite drawing next to the photoshoped image.  I look forward to showing the paintings as they are completed.  Enjoy.







My Process: The Creation of “Hope in a Hopeless Place”

Like most artists, my process has changed over the years and continues to evolve.  With the help of a few photos, I’m going to talk about the way I currently create my paintings.  That said, the process detailed below is not always how I paint, but it does characterize generally how most pieces come about.

The piece whose development I’m going to detail is titled “Hope in a Hopeless Place” and can be seen in my upcoming show at Pulse Gallery called “Oil + Glass”, which opens on July 5th.  The show will feature  my oil paintings and the glasswork of Rob Morey – everyone reading this is invited (for details see my news section).

Okay, on to my process!  Like almost every painting I do, this one started out as a sketch.  I start my sketches by randomly scribbling on the page.  I then stare at this mass of scribbles until I see interesting shapes and forms (much like we all do with clouds).  The sketch develops as I darken the lines which bring out these shapes and forms.  By the way, this process of creating images through random scribbles is known as automatism and was first brought to prominence by the Surrealists. 

Ballpoint pen sketch of "Hope in a Hopeless Place"

This first image shows the sketch – both the scribbles as well as the shapes and forms I developed from them.


The next phase of the process involves doing two drawings, one grayscale, the other color.  The grayscale drawing is done using both powdered and stick graphite as well as my much loved Pink Pearl erasers.  Doing this drawing is typically my favorite step of the pre painting part of the process.  Using the eraser to bring out the images on the graphite-smeared surface seems like an almost magical act, with forms and shapes emerging from some other realm.  It is also at this stage that the value range is more or less established.

Graphite Drawing of "Hope in a Hopeless Place"

This second image is of the grayscale graphite drawing.


The second drawing in the series is the color one and is done in pastel.  The outlines of the primary shapes and forms are done with stick graphite.  It is at this stage that most of the color choices are made.  Pastels are a great medium for establishing color – they are easy and fun to work with and they can be erased and/or gone over with other colors.  At this stage, the value range is sometimes further enhanced.

Pastel Drawing of "Hope in a Hopeless Place"

This third photo shows the pastel drawing.


Okay, now on to the painting.  With the value range and color choices generally established, executing the painting is largely a process of doing what I did with the pastel drawing, only instead of using pastel on paper, I’m using paint on canvas or panel (canvas in the case of “Hope in a Hopeless Place”).  That said, doing the painting is rarely a process of simply copying the drawing in paint.  Paint, and oil paint in particular (not that I’m biased toward the medium at all) is a wonderful, seductive, luscious medium which, in the process of working with it, can sometimes dictate what it wants to do rather than me dictating what I want it to do.  In the case of “Hope in a Hopeless Place”, I built the painting up using several transparent glazed layers, and then incorporated more opaque applications (called scumbles in artspeak).  I also allowed the paint to drip and run in several locations.  The actual painting process is one of give and take as I work back and forth between figure and ground, between glazing and scumbling, and between dark and light – until the right balance is achieved.  Arriving at this balance is the most magical, intuitive part of the whole process – you simply know you’re there when you arrive.

Oil Painting of "Hope in a Hopeless Place"

And here’s the painting…




A New Approach

Well, the “Under the Influence” show at Pulse Gallery went well.  In addition to a sale and some very positive response, it resulted in another show next year – a two man exhibition with myself and glass worker extraordinaire Rob Morey.

On that note, below are a few working photos of some recent drawings.  These were all done in preparation for an upcoming series of paintings.  In most of my paintings of the past few years, I’ve been going straight from sketch to painting.  For this next series, I’m doing a minimum of two drawings for each piece.  In these drawings, I am able to hone the imagery, establish the value range, and decide on at least some of the color choices.  In the former approach, these things had to be worked out during the actual painting process.  I think this new approach will both speed things up as well as make for more visually interesting pieces.  I’m really excited to continue this development. 

The grayscale drawings are done with graphite on white drawing paper, while the colored ones are done with graphite, charcoal, and pastel on tinted paper.  Enjoy and I’d welcome any feedback.

Studio Visit with Peter Frank

On July 2nd, I had a studio visit with Peter Frank, senior curator of the Riverside Art Museum and frequent contributor to The Huffington Post and other journals. The visit was made possible by April Game, director of Art Pulse, of whose Mentor Program I am a member.  Peter will be curating a show at Pulse Gallery here in San Diego featuring the work of the participants of the last Mentor Program, a group of diverse and talented artists whose insight and friendship I have come to highly value.

This was an amazing visit.  Peter has a way of articulating the essence of both the process and visual vocabulary of artwork that hits the nail on the head.  The result of the visit was a renewed sense of confidence in both my work and process as well as new goals and challenges I could give myself.

What follows are some highlights.

It began with a discussion of my fondness for the work of Arshile Gorky, the Armenian American painter who was perhaps the major forerunner of the Abstract Expressionist movement.  Peter mentioned that when he first saw Gorky’s work, “it really bothered me because they looked technically unfinished but they worked pictorially,  In other words, they looked unfinished but you couldn’t figure out how he could possibly finish them”.  He went on to say, “Gorky is always in flux.  In fact, what I am looking for and to a certain extent finding in your work is doing that your way, not his way.  You are looking at the same world he did but from a different vantage point”.   On the subject of sources for imagery, I mentioned that Gorky’s were always grounded in nature, to which Peter noted that “He (Gorky) was always working from a still life, an interior, or when he moved to Connecticut and did plein air abstraction.  I do recognize that these (my paintings) are not referential and I prefer them that way”.

Turning to the topic of process, I told him that my images and compositions are arrived at through the means of automatism (pulling shapes and forms from random scribbles).  Peter noted that it is a time-honored approach, then asked me if I consider my sketches fully fledged artworks, which I do.   He then mentioned that “You are a good colorist, but an even better tonalist”.

In surveying all my pieces at once, he noted, “What I notice in this group is a range of effect with a consistency of approach, which is what you look for in a painter. That you are not turning out the same painting each time, and that you are making something that is you each time. This is an impressive bunch“.

In comparing my current body of work with the otherworldly creatures I was painting a couple of years ago, he said, “It’s a different context of expression… and there is a continuity from there to here.  You are speaking a different language with the same accent.  The consistency here is remarkably sophisticated, that’s the best way to say it.  In painting, what frames the artwork conceptually is where you want the sophistication“.

As for the purpose of my artwork, he noted, “You are conscious of satisfying your urges without indulging them.  In other words you are doing what you need to do without loosing sight of the fact that you’re not doing this for yourself, that you have to create an object that has a graphic appeal.  But that acknowledgement is not an impetus.  In the best sense, this is very professional work”.  He went on to say that “So many artists make the mistake of thinking they are doing work as therapy for them.  The only people  that an artist should be doing therapy for is everybody else.  Your audience needs the therapy”.

On the level of abstraction, he said that “These (my paintings) are not pictures.  They are experiences.  And they are not entirely optical experiences either.  You show an understanding of themeaning and tradition of abstraction.  That its not a reduction or a manipulation of what is seen, but a manifestation of what is sensed otherwise.  I can hear these.  Or taste them“.

Noting my technique, he stated that, “A couple of things that bother me are the brushwork in the ground… it would bother me except that you handle it in a convincing way.  In fact, that’s what ultimately optically is so gratifying about this brushwork, for all the brushiness that it maintains, it gives the ground a sense of space and allows you to model the figure and push it forward, making the components more complex”.  He then suggested that, “For your signature, do it big, on the back.  The images need their own space”.

Among his other suggestions, he thought I should do a series of drawings, perhaps in gouache and/or colored pencil.  “…when you are exploring drawing media – reverse the process.  Evolve some of the drawings out of what you are doing on canvas.”  He also mentioned doing variations on a theme, noting that, in my paintings, “the manipulation of space and form in each of them relates in a certain progressive way to the others”.

After touching a bit mere on technique and process, he concluded the visit with these parting words of wisdom.  “You can’t tell people what to see, you can only tell people what you see, and if they are smart, they will accept what you see and build on it”.

The show will open on Friday September 7th, 2012 at 6pm.  2825 Dewey Road Suite 103, San Diego, CA 92106. 

More New Stuff

Continuing with my ongoing series of paintings, here are three new ones I recently started.  As in previous posts, the first photo in each pairing shows the painging itself while the second one is of the sketch on which it is based.  Enjoy.






As for the earlier pieces in the series, here is how they look at the time of this posting – they are nearly complete (famous last words).



Intuition takes me for a turn – literally

With respect to the painting I’ve been detailing in my last two posts, my intuition again takes me to unexpected places.  About a week ago, upon finishing up a painting session, I hung the piece on a wall in my studio to dry.   Due to the configuration of the wall and the placement of other paintings around it,  I had to turn the piece sideways in order to hang it, rendering the view of it “landscape” rather than “portrait” (as it had been worked on up to that point).  Upon viewing it this way over the next few days, I found it to be more interesting and compelling, and so have been working on it this way ever since…