Sunday, June 19, 2016

Writing for the Arts

Writing for the Arts was the name of a class I took at California State University, Los Angeles in the late 1980s when I was finishing up my Bachelors degree in Art. I learned a lot in the class, and the professor (Sandy B.) was adamant about NOT writing in the "Artspeak" manner so typical of most art reviewers and critics. If you've ever tried to read that stuff, you know how utterly nonsensical and useless it is.

I was grateful that Sandy introduced us to a writing style that emphasized descriptive language -- wording that would form images in the reader's minds, using lots of adverbs, some adjectives and "good" verbs. As much as possible, I continue to try to write that way in what I would consider my "serious" writing (posts on Facebook are NOT included in that group!) One example of my "serious" writing appears on my website -- my Bio page (aka "Why Does Mark Paint the Desert?!?" -- you can see it HERE).

In addition, the following was an assignment for the class, talking about some early experiences (1970s) with selling my surrealist paintings at an outdoor art fair.


“Geez, that’s weird!” he said, pausing briefly, then turning away into the art fair’s forest of canvases, tinkling windchimes and seashell animals. The April sun gently warmed the barely-clothed bodies meandering down the narrow pathways.

“Really different. By far the best work in the show.” I looked up. The man, perhaps in his sixties, smiled, nodded and continued on his way.

A breeze softly lifted a lock of her long, reddish-brown hair as her mouth and eyes opened into perfect circles. “A surrealist! How neat!” She gazed at my paintings in wonder. “I’d love to buy one. Will you be here next week?”

“Probably,” I said.

She smiled. “Great! I’ll probably see you then.” I knew I would never see her again.

The flow of people seemed to stop momentarily, so I ambled over to my neighbor. “They never buy here. They only look,” he commented with the air of wisdom that comes only with long, hard years of experience.

“I think you’re right,” I answered. “I’ve gotten lots of nice comments, but you can’t pay the bills with nice comments.” He agreed.

An older couple appeared and looked at my paintings. I quickly turned, but they left before I could take a step. An older, bearded intellectual type stopped, thoughtfully puffed on his pipe, and spoke slowly.

“A Rod Serling of the brush” he said, continuing with a discourse on the meaning of my work. He told me things about my artwork that even I didn’t know. I couldn’t resist.

“Wanna buy it?”

“No, no,” he laughed as he walked away.

I had hoped to sell publishing rights to the story to The Artist magazine, but they wanted writing that showed the positive side of the artists' lives. Well, I'll admit my story isn't very hopeful, but it IS accurate!

Oh, well. At least my writing skills are still intact. I doubt I'll ever write a novel, but I can see trying my luck with writing some short stories. Author Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors, and he wrote some short stories that used some of this descriptive language in powerful ways. So -- maybe some day...

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Three Things I've Learned About Painting

I've been painting for what seems like forever. Like many other activities, one usually gets better with years of practice.

Making art has been like that. Some of it is just about learning how to get the paint on the canvas and to make the finished item look the way you want it to.

But I've learned three distinct principles that the Old Masters apparently knew that add so much to the power of a painting.

  • The Golden Mean. Briefly, the Golden Mean is a proportional tool that, in two-dimensional art, is a focal point of intersecting lines at given distances from the edges of the work. The eye is drawn to these point locations and automatically makes you look at them (or it). Four of them potentially exist at once, but the artist chooses one that works the best for the image s/he wants to use. It's a similar concept that photographers use known as the Rule of Thirds; only, the Golden Mean places the point of interest closer to the center: 0.382 distance from the length and width, unlike the Rule of Third's 0.333.
Golden Mean,pleasing, focal point,eye-catching,composition,art
Each of the four points near the center represents the rectangle's Golden Mean. Any of these are the best places to locate the most important feature or subject of a painting.
  • Selective Focus. Friend and amazing artist Virgil Elliot pointed out this principle --  the area of interest (probably located at the Golden Mean) should have sharp edges, and the other edges should be softened. Again, this tends to make you look at the important area and more closely resembles how we actually see things -- what we stare at is sharp, and the rest of the world appears more blurry to us. (To see Virgil's website, click here).
  • Contrast. The eye likes contrast -- very light against very dark. Painters can use this to their advantage -- make the important area contrasty -- even white next to black -- and soften the contrast on the rest of the painting.

That's my three-point message. Using one of my own paintings to illustrate all this, let's examine the piece in light of these principles:

sand,dunes,verbena,flowers,Mount,Mt,San Jacinto,Palm Springs, CA,California,desert
On Waves of Sand   20" x 24"
The Golden Mean point I used is to the lower left of center. The sharpest spot (hard to see in this small reproduction) is the creosote bush with a blowing sand cloud behind it. And the area of highest contrast is the bush and the sand cloud. (The white on the mountain peak is brighter than the blowing sand, but I kept the contrast up there low, so it doesn't grab your attention as the bush does.

After I learned these things -- one years ago, some quite recently -- I then noticed how painters of previous centuries did this stuff. The nice thing about being taught traditional approaches to art is -- one doesn't have to reinvent the wheel.

There is a lot more involved to making great art than just the above three fundamentals. But, in my opinion, learning about them helped me enormously as an artist. Next time you go to an art museum or even a gallery that carries some really good work -- look for these qualities in the paintings. The great paintings of the past and present have them. These are some of the characteristics one looks for in evaluating and judging art -- and separating the wheat from the chaff!