Sometimes when I’m working my shift at the co-op gallery or at an art festival, people ask me where I get my ideas – or where do I get my inspiration. This is a question I used to entertain when I saw other artists’ work. I wondered where they copied it from, and if it wasn’t copied, how in the world did they figure out how to do that! It was a great mystery!
For the first 28 years of my life I never met an artist who painted other than as a hobby. Even my art teachers were Teachers first and I don’t recall ever seeing a completed painting by any of them – not even my college art teachers. My very first oil painting was “Paint by Number” when I was around 12 years old. I didn’t even know that oil paint was available any other way.
I started copying my classmates’ photos when I was around 8 years old, erasing holes in the paper, trying over and over again until I got it right. Eventually I got to be very good at copying photos. Whether it was photos of people or landscapes or just about anything, I could copy it. Friends and relatives would say “Wow! You are such a good artist!” I would politely thank them but I felt that something was missing. I wanted to be a “real” artist – whatever that was. Even our high school art teacher told us to “find a nice picture and copy it.” I copied photos onto typing paper, using pencil, charcoal, watercolor or pastels. Everyone, including the teacher said “Wow! You are such a good artist!” But no one ever asked me where I got my inspiration.
I believe that I learned from copying photos to train my eyes to really look closely and draw what I could see with my eyes. I learned to measure one shape against the other with my eyes and to make the same relationships in my copy. I learned to distinguish the slightest differences in tonal value and color. I learned to look for basic shapes – squares, circles, triangles and combinations and variations of these shapes in every form of nature that I saw – in trees, animals, buildings. objects and human faces. And I believed that none of this required “talent.” I believed that anyone who wanted to practice the way I did, could eventually learn to do it the same way I had.
There was a break from photo copying in one of my college drawing classes. The teacher set up a still life and we drew it in charcoal on real charcoal paper – NOT typing paper! Still, I felt that something was missing because I was still copying a scene that the art teacher had set up. It was not much different from copying a photo. There were those basic shapes – squares, circles, triangles, subtle variations in tone and value and color. Mine looked pretty much like all the others’ in the class but still I felt like a cheater, a fraud. Even when I copied my own photos, I felt like there had to be more to this whole idea of being an artist than just copying. All my other college art classes encouraged photo copying too. Years later I exhibited my portraits in shows and still felt like Someone – an Expert, an Authority, a REAL Artist – would call me out and reveal to the world that I was only a copier. I wanted to make something up that no one had ever seen before. I wanted to see a vision in my head and bring it into reality.
During one of my college oil painting classes, I “made up” a landscape. The main color I used was alizarin crimson. I loved the depth of the color and the consistency and texture of it. I mixed it with ultramarine blue and titanium white and the results resembled a red lake surrounded by strange red/purple/bue mountains – much like Crater Lake (which I did not actually see until a few years later) but in bizarre colors. I secretly loved the painting but I was embarrassed to show it to the teacher because I didn’t understand what I was doing at the time and I feared his rejection. Looking back all these years later, I realized that what I loved was the experience. Feeling the paint flow, watched the colors blend, watching shapes materialize into a pattern I could follow around the canvas as if I were on the Magical Mystery Tour that the Beatles sang about. And while I loved it, I also hated it. It was unpredictable and out of control. It was not like anyone else’s in the class. I felt protective – I didn’t want the painting or my own fragile experience shattered by criticism. But I had to show it or take a failing grade in senior year and I couldn’t do that! The teacher said “You have a lot of potential.” I didn’t know what he meant by that, and he didn’t bother to explain, but I interpreted it to mean that I had almost done something good – but not quite. I got a “B” in the course and hoarded that painting as a souvenir of a place I almost visited. It was a secret love affair with Alizarin Crimson that I was not secure enough at that time to reveal. But in my deepest private world I felt proud of it. Like I had finally created a “Real” piece of art. But I did not try it again for a very long time.
Fast forward through more than 50 years of practice as a copy artist. One day I was tired of painting portraits. I was tired of trying to please other people. I was tired of doing the same thing over and over. With a great deal of drama and release of frustration, I squirt paint out of the tube onto a large canvas, without regard for choice of color. I smear the paint around the canvas with no respect for economy or care of my brushes or anything except the pure joy of watching the paint swirl and flow and spread over the entire canvas. The thrill didn’t last very long. I grew up with Depression Era parents. I was constantly reminded to “be careful – don’t waste anything” In the midst of my joyous expression, I am suddenly overcome with guilt when I stop and look at what I have done. The canvas is indeed covered with paint. “It’s a mess! ” my critical mind exclaims. “You have wasted so much paint and an expensive canvas! No one will ever buy this!” And then suddently, there is a vivid flashback to the love affair with alizarin crimson, and my heart skips a beat or two at the thought of the “potential.”
So I lean it against the wall and go about my business of doing the “important” things of life – cleaning, paying bills, cooking. But as I walk by the paint-covered canvas I start seeing things that intrigue me. Little shapes that want to be defined. Lines that beg to be followed to another area of the painting. I hang the painting on the wall. Each time I walk by, I turn it another direction and more areas of interest seem to call out to me. “What if I mess it up?” I am afraid to paint. I am afraid not to paint. I am frozen in a mixture of fear and thrill – like the second before stepping onto a roller coaster. “Come closer.” It says. So I zoom in, like I’m looking into a microscope at the atomic structure of life itself, and follow the little lines created by the brush strokes, emphasizing them with highlights or shadows or lines, building contrasts, discovering shapes and forms and bringing them to life. sometimes recognizable forms appear – like dragons or human faces. Other times rhythmic patterns lead my hand and eye to yet another area of interest. I am playing with paint like I am 5 years old!
I hang it on the wall again – zooming out like I’m looking through a telescope at the Cosmos. I turn it again and again, each time another secret is revealed and I watch the painting come to life and realize I am only a tool – my hands, my eyes and the paint dance together before me and I am but the audience in the dance of creativity. As I answer the call from the painting, sometimes I hear music, I hear lines of poetry, I hear humorous phrases and chants. If I happen to be listening to music, I watch my hands move to the rhythm of the music – the music becomes part of the painting. The painting becomes alive with the energy of life, the energy of the music, the energy that flows through all of us – the same energy that holds atoms together to form molecules and cells and all of life itself. Through many paintings, it is revealed to me that this is “Creative Energy.” We, created in the “Image” of The Ultimate Creator, Who is “Pure Creative Energy” are also Pure Creative Energy. It flows through each of us equally and therefore we all have equal creative ability. We were also endowed with the Freedom of Choice, so we get to use it or direct it in any way we want – for good or “evil.” We can make paintings, or music, or stories, or cakes or automobiles or funny jokes. We can make bombs.
Fast forward again, through many paintings. This time I decided to photograph the evolution of this painting. It begins the same as the others, squirting paint out of the tube onto the canvas. Only this time I am working from the center, adding paint from the center toward the outer edges as it tells me while I watch it evolve. I am using Acrylic Paint. It begins with Cerulean Blue and Titanium White. No palette is used. The colors are blended on the canvas. Then it asks for red. It’s not particular – any red will do. I believe this is Napthol Red Light. Zoom in! Follow the little blue lines. Follow the little red lines. Watch how they work together.” (This is what the paint is telling me.)
I begin to see depth. I come in with a darker blue – Pthalo Blue to emphasize the deep places. More red, this time mixing with the blue. More white – an interesting break in the circular pattern. “Where did that come from? What should I do with that? I don’t want to mess this up!” (This is my critical ego-mind talking. It’s best not to listen to it. I find that if I ignore it, it will eventually get quiet so I can “listen” to the paint.)
Some darker red – I think it’s Quinachodone Magenta (I don’t even know how to pronounce it!) Some renegade blue and while again breaking the pattern of the concentric circles. “Just follow it.” the paint says.
Titanium White circles around the red and blue. Until now, white has not had so much to say. It has been quietly accentuating the blue and letting red have some attention. Suddenly, as clear as if a band was marching through the room I hear John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” Specifically: “Hoorah for the Red, White and Blue…” And now it’s time to zoom in again.
And back out again as White claims the outer edges of the canvas. Blue wants to accentuate the sharpness of the red bursts by outlining it.
Zooming in again for more detail: Remember the first white break from the concentric colors? Still following original patterns made by initial brushstrokes, accenting what is already there.
This represents an area in the painting about 4″ x 4″ – still zooming in, finding detail.
This painting even told me where to put the signature.
As the details are working their way into the painting, The Stars and Strips Forever continues to play and I think about the summers while I was in college when I worked in a Fireworks Stand every 4th of July for 4 years. And that’s when the painting told me its name “Red Sharp Major.”
I love watching Energy Paintings evolve. Every one is different. I share this because I know that if you use a similar process, every painting that you do will also be unique. I think that sometimes we get too serious and we scare ourselves into thinking that we might do it “wrong.” I’m here to tell you from my own experience that you can’t do it “wrong.” The product doesn’t matter. The experience is what really is important. And if you happen to get a “product” – a finished work of art that you really like – well, that’s a bonus. My next challenge is to continually try new media, new techniques, new subject matter, new processes so that I don’t “paint myself into a box.” We should be mindful of how we define ourselves.