I made a painting trip to Venice in early November. The only constant was the constant change in weather – fog, clouds, sun, rain, flood. Not ideal conditions for a plein-air painter. But the challenge was fun. The crowds congenial. Only one critic stepped forward, a man who stuck his head into my space, to tell me that my composition would be better had I left more sky (see composition below).
As many of you know, I use the Impressionist method of breaking down the painting process into 5 stages, each complete in itself, which is to say there is no endpoint in mind or finish except in the sense when I have nothing more to say, I stop. And in that sense the painting is finished. For example, the painting below is the third stage or “Underpainting” of the painting above. In this stage, I’m looking for color only. At first I “scumble” in just the dark values, then just the middle values, and I leave the light values open or plain canvas. Therefore, in this approach, I never see the subject as buildings, water, etc – just veils of atmospheric color in this stage. In this stage then, I establish the tonality of the thing that I’m looking at.
There are many artists who believe that cranking through such a structured method is confining, that the very creative process is being controlled, or dictated in a sense. Teaching such a method, it is argued, stifles the little genius within. I remember Wolf Kahn articulating a philosophy somewhat akin to this point of view. In fact, when he taught, he steered away from anything that had to do with “how to.” He didn’t really demonstrate. It all turned on expressing yourself and then a critique of the results by Wolf would follow. Methods, as such, were little cages to be shunned. In such classes, “coaching” displaces teaching; specific structured methods are not taught, nor should they be.
Sadly, only visual artists seem to have made a principle out of this “just express yourself” belief. Dance, theater, cinema, writing, and music are art forms steeped in rigorous instruction. Music may be the one art form in which it is easy to understand how creative expression and intense study of structured methods are symbiotic. Improvisation exists within a structure, for example. And in music and unlike in the visual arts, one can do “important” work and express oneself creatively through a mode that is centuries old. Structured modes, rigorous demands regarding keys, harmony (or not), timing and the like are not understood as so many cages but a language that enables expression. Hence, playing Mozart is still relevant.
Given all this, I was tickled to read about Matisse’s views on this given that he is a favorite of Kahn’s and emblematic of unbridled expression. Matisse himself was a product of rigorous academic training; however, he thought that his particular academic training was “deadly for young artists.”  But Matisse didn’t confuse Parisian academic training (that served the interest of a ruling class) with rigorous training per se. In 1908, when he formed his own school, he noted the following:
The few exhibitions that I have had the opportunity of seeing during these last years, makes me fear that the young painters are avoiding the slow and painful preparation which is necessary for the education of any contemporary painter who claims to construct by color alone….
An artist must possess Nature. He must identify himself with her rhythms, by efforts that will prepare the master which will later enable him to express himself in his own language….- everything that will let him become one with Nature, …that arouse his feelings.” 
And in a criticism of a student Matisse said, “The model must not be made to agree with a preconceived theory or effect. It must impress you, awaken in you an emotion, which in turn you seek to express.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.
The inference I draw from Matisse is this: there are some structured and rigorous methods that are deadly, largely because they are intended to control the product and therefore the process. There are also structured and rigorous methods that liberate, that awaken in us emotions and provide us with the ability to express ourselves in our own language. Our task, then, is to know one from the other and not to throw the method-baby out with the bath water. Or to make the case from a painter’s point of view, I would never have learned to see and be moved by atmospheric color if, when I painted, I were not asked to see the thing as enveloped by the most seductive atmospheric color – each and every time I painted.
Here’s the real kicker: structured and rigorous methods are necessary, yes. But also important is what Matisse’s life example teaches – and as my teacher would always ad as a caveat to his teaching: at some point, take the method and throw it out the window. By doing so, Henri eventually became Matisse. It’s all about becoming the people we are most, you know.
All of which begs the question: so when do we chuck the method? I think one would first have to master it before tossing it out the window. And it would have to feel constraining, I suspect. But I’m not sure. I haven’t gotten that far.
I’m often told by students, particularly when I do a demonstration, that they don’t see the colors that I place on the canvas. Part of this, I suppose, is due to the fact that I’ve been painting longer and, therefore, I’ve been looking for color longer – which means I probably see more color. But there are two more important possible reasons.
One is that many students assume that part of the painting process is simply painting colors that one thinks will be good. In other words, they assume that part of painting is making up colors out of one’s head. Given that the method I teach turns on the joy and fulfillment of discovering one’s powers, I never make up colors and I discourage such practices (at least for the first 10 years). It’s not about getting certain results; rather it is about getting a rush from seeing. The results take care of themselves. But the second reason is what I want to address: painters often paint not what they see but the expectation or what they think they should be seeing.
For example, above is a photo of the scene that we used to paint from my studio terrace. I would say that 9 out of 10 students would paint the mountains farthest away and the peninsula in front pretty much the same color. A typical color would be a kind of viridian green and white.
The above image might be the typical colors that students would use. The peninsula and the mountain range are greenish. But when I would give a student a square piece of plastic with a little hole in the middle and when I would ask them what the color of the mountains farthest away is, they always came up with the right answer: a light bluish color.
In the above image we see first the little circle on the mountain. Keep in mind that by looking just through the little hole, the student can’t see that he or she is looking at a distant mountain. Therefore, the artist can’t possibly think “mountain” or “trees” (which equal green mentally). All that they are able to see is just the color in the little hole. In other words they have isolated the color from what the color is part of (mountain, sky, clothing, whatever). “Oh I see it. The color is bluish!”
When we use the blue we saw through the little hole to scumble the color of the distant mountain (I used photoshop to give you the sense of an underpainting, but notice the simplification: big simple shapes and relationships), we have the correct color and value relationships.
This is what Monet meant when he said “don’t see the things before you.” Just see the color. The trick of course is to squint, compare, and train your eyes to see just color (or line) and not things with names. As painters, we must understand that concepts in our head undermine the seeing of color (or sensations). We think we are seeing but actually we are reading. Skies are blue, apples are red, trees are green and so are mountains. That’s what it means to be “literal.”
It is helpful to use a piece of plastic with a little hole in the middle in order to isolate colors. You will be surprised that you will have no difficulty seeing color. You can do it already. But don’t see the thing before you. Just see the color. Not only will your work improve. You will get a rush and your paintings will be alive.
I have been making a living, entirely, from painting and teaching for over 20 years. There are a variety of ways of doing this, of course, but if one is interested in independence and the freedom to paint whatever it is that moves one, entirely self-directed, then my story may be of interest. Here it is.
The look of Red Umbrellas just getting set up for an exhibition in the 2002 performing art series.
As I have explained elsewhere, in 1989 I dropped out of academia and decided to move to San Francisco. It would be there, I had hoped, that I would be able to make a living as a painter. As it turned out, San Francisco was a good place to be. They had a long tradition of artists exhibiting and selling their work in the parks.
Initially, I was averse to selling in the parks. The “shows” had, to put it bluntly, the appearance of art swap meets. So, instead, I brought my work around to galleries. I was able to get into a few (San Francisco, Carmel, Northampton, MA). But the truth is that while I have sold over 1,000 paintings in my life (and to collectors in every state in the US and in a dozen or more countries), I have never – not once – sold anything in a gallery. What was worse, for me, was the way I was treated. I was the “street scene guy” – kind of a painter-worker-bee – who delivered a specific product to the gallery. Appointments to have gallerists come by my studio were regularly blown off. I could go on; gallery horror stories abound.
But let me jump ahead: in the end I decided to exhibit with one of the outdoor groups and guess what? I began meeting hundreds of people who expressed an interest in what I was doing – “my audience.” I began to develop a very good mailing list. Given the large number of artists who participated, I learned about framing and presentation, shipping, as well as other media and approaches. I began to sell. I began to paint more. And most importantly, I grew.
Given all these positives, the one remaining thing to change, I thought, was the look and feel of the group so that one could sincerely claim that it helped beautify the public space and provide to the public a direct access to art and artists. So with others, I began to re-invent the outdoor show. After about 10 years of building, we created a new group, called Red Umbrellas (RU), and in this video you can see what we looked like as we exhibited with performing arts non-profits (SF Jazz, a string quartet from the SF Symphony, the Gay Men’s Chorus, and the SF Opera) on successive weekends (a September performing art series) in Union Square in San Francisco:
If you wish to create an outdoor exhibition group in your town, here are some pointers:
1. Become a non-profit, not a promoted show.
Promoted shows are run by “promoters” who are profit motivated. This means that they are interested in as many fee-paying participants as possible. It is not a group. One pays a fee, participates in the exhibition, and goes home. The promoter (and/or board) makes up the rules and juries the show. In addition to fees, a percentage of sale proceeds generally go to the promoter (perhaps 15% – unless the fee to participate is large, then the commission may be waved altogether).
RU, a non-profit (501c3), was and is a group of artists who are juried into the group by other artists. Officers are elected. Decision-making is democratic. The jury is chosen from among the artists. As a non-profit, the idea is to first provide a public benefit, sales are technically speaking “incidental.” Artists pay a fee, which goes into the treasury, and the artists keep 100% of all sales proceeds. We eventually reduced the fee to zero by incorporating a “Lobby Program” (read below).
2. Develop a Uniform Look
The look of the show is critical. We wanted the public to see us as a group of artists, not a collection of individual booths, each with a different look and feel. Therefore, our display system for each artist was identical. Each of us used the same red umbrellas. And we agreed on a set of rules to insure that only the art displayed varied, at the same time that anything “junky-looking” was eliminated. Remember: outdoor shows are considered the last rung on the ladder. As an independent group, as an independent force, we set out to change the paradigm.
3. Make it an exhibition space, not a market.
A “show” that is a market is one where individuals are free to exhibit whatever they want. This inevitably leads to artists making copies of what sold last time and in the end, one sees the same artist selling the same cat painting or print over and over. In our case, we did not allow the selling of “mechanical reproductions.” No digital art, for example. With regard to prints – etchings for example – the artist had to have limited editions that met professional standards. Only photography developed in a dark room with limited editions was permitted. But obviously, your group can set whatever standards it pleases. We wanted to be taken seriously.
4. Have enough shows to make a living.
Our group consisted of about 20 artists (other groups were larger) and we organized anywhere from 60 to 100 exhibitions per year. Obviously, the goal is to find an exhibition space where there is a lot of commercial traffic. And access to “better” sites often depends on how the group is perceived. Hence the need for the standards noted above. It was much easier to approach property managers or city officials if I could say, “We are a non-profit with high presentation standards that first and foremost wishes to exhibit original work to the public.”
All the “regulars” who did most of the shows were able to make a living and make whatever kind of art they wanted.
5. Reduce or eliminate fees through special exhibitions.
In the video above, you can see our “Performing Art Series.” It was expensive to produce, but with in-kind and monetary contributions, we actually made money from the series. One of our best fundraising programs, which you can develop even if you never exhibit out-of-doors is the Lobby Program. As you will see, the goal here was to pay artists to exhibit, all the while they kept 100% of their sales proceeds. In addition to paying artists to exhibit (on average $1,500 per artist), we generated enough money so that we could reduce participation fees in the outdoor program to zero. Here’s how the Lobby Program worked:
The Lobby Program
Basically, RU replaced the “art consultant,” whose job it was to hang shows in SF’s financial district or “downtown lobbies.” It goes like this: generally an art consultant will approach an artist and say, “If you would like to participate in the exhibitions I hang in prestigious lobbies, just give me some photos of your work. If you are selected, I hang your work, and if you sell, you get 60%. Plus there is promotion and a reception.”
Sounds pretty good. A better cut than most galleries. But wait. Think it through. I went to visit a variety of property managers and discovered that the art consultant, besides taking 40% of your sales proceeds, was getting a healthy stipend up front for organizing and hanging the show.
In one prestigious building in SF (101 California Street – about 30 stories, with a magnificent lobby and landscaped terrace outside) I found that art consultants were paid $7,000 for a 6-week show. Art consultant who can get a few properties can make a bundle. Thank you artists, who jump at the chance to get only 60%.
So as a group, we decided to replace the art consultant. We developed a portfolio of interested artists (we decided that artists could participate in our lobby program without having to do outdoor shows, too). We hung the shows. Half of the $7,000 was used to pay artists to exhibit. The other half went into the RU treasury, which enabled outdoor show participants to exhibit for free.
There is only one profession where the word “starving” is accepted as an appropriate adjective – ie, starving artist. To be honest, I think this is due to the fact that artists embrace and celebrate the market and the private economy instead of resisting it – instead of thinking creatively beyond the canvas. I don’t think it takes a whole lot of insight to figure out that the point of the art industry is not to expand the circle of art and creativity, but to insure that “art” is the province of a few very wealthy people (think auction houses, museum boards, the Venice Biennali). Branded galleries, for example, are intentionally designed to intimidate and to feel exclusive. The point here is that in this environment it is functional for artists to be dependent and poor.
Unlike other professionals, as visual artists, we accept the fact we are often working for free: we provide a free inventory to galleries (unlike, say, in the days of the Impressionists when dealers bought work straight out), we decorate restaurants and other spaces for free (in the off chance we might sell), and we give our work away for “benefits” (generally under the heading of, “Many rich collectors will see your work!!”). The worst indignity to me is what all this does to us. We become marketing freaks. These situations describe artists who are of the market.
I’ve just described two situations in which one sells – hence one is “in” the market – but obtains independence, meets more people in a day than she would in a year in a gallery, gets the names and numbers of interested parties (often disallowed by galleries), meets directly and often with her audience, has total control over production and distribution of her work, develops as an artist, and makes a living. In these situations we might be in the market but we would not necessarily have to be of the market.
For a painter dependent upon sales, the distinction is an important one.
 Once at an outdoor show, a gallery owner asked me how many paintings I sold in a year. At that point in time my answer was 75. He responded, “Well, you don’t need me.” I said nothing but thought to myself, “Yes, that’s right. But do you still want to have a conversation?”
There’s an old joke from grade school that I still remember. It’s rather dumb, but the punch line turns on a thought that has relevance. Maybe that’s why I remember it. Two guys on an island. One is a millionaire smoker who has a ton of cigarettes but no matches. He’s freaking out. The other guy has a book of matches and says to the millionaire smoker, “I’ll give you my matches for $1,000.” The smoker jumps at the chance, hands over $1,000 and the guy with the book of matches rips out the matches from the book and hands them to the smoker. “That’s not fair,” implores the smoker. “I still can’t light a cigarette. I have no striker.” “So true,” says the guy with the empty book of matches containing the striker. “But I will sell you the striker for $50,000.”
Let’s call this the “striker phenomenon” or SP for short. SP occurs when someone controls, often a monopoly control, some single thing that substantially impacts the life chances of another. Okay, are you still with me? Enter Pissarro.
Pissarro, as you know, was the philosophical leader of the Impressionists. What historians wish us to remember is that the Impressionists broke the rules of traditional painting and came up with a new aesthetic. This isn’t wrong. But this emphasis trivializes, to say the least, the Impressionist contribution. The Impressionist contribution that is much more relevant to painters today was not their rule breaking aesthetic. Instead it was their brilliant way of avoiding the SP or to say it another way, they devised a way to sidestep what was an aristocratic state-controlled monopoly over exhibitions (think distribution) of their work, i.e., the Salon. In short, the Salon of mid-19th century Paris required that artists paint certain themes and in a certain way (in order to make noble and moral the vast accumulation of wealthy by a few). If you didn’t you would have a hard time surviving. The genius of Pissarro et al. was in devising an institutional response to an institutional constraint on the freedom of artists. The model that Pissarro came up with was based upon a baker’s union: the Impressionists (called “intransigents” at the time) launched a series of independent exhibitions, gained control over the exhibition/distribution of their work and, hence, the production of their work as well. Or to put it in plain English, they became free to paint whatever the hell they wanted in the way they wanted.
But alas, the story doesn’t end well. Yes, the control by the aristocratic state faded away, but a new control over the exhibition of their work (and hence their production) arose in the guise of the private entrepreneur or dealer, the most famous of which at the time was Durand-Ruel. To be sure, Durand-Ruel was credited with opening markets, especially internationally for the Impressionists and for a time, especially early on, was praised by the painters themselves. But the SP, unmistakably, reasserted itself. Pissarro, ever alert to the control by another over his direction, would lament, as he struggled financially, that he had “to please Durand.” Resigned to his fate, Pissarro wrote to his son when he was 68, “Durand-Ruel, who has given me the same prices for ten years….It is true that he takes all my work, but on the other hand, he has too much power over me.” The Impressionists, jumping out of the state-controlled SP frying pan, jumped into the fire of the private enterprise SP.
And how does Angelina Jolie fit into this story? As noted above, she underwent a double mastectomy because tests showed that were she not to do this, she would have a high risk of developing either breast or ovarian cancer. The tests in question are tests that can identify the mutation of specific genes, and it is this mutation that could lead to life-threatening cancer. But here’s the rub: the private SP is back in spades. There is private monopoly control over these tests:
“A Utah biotech company Myriad Genetics owns the patent to BRCA1, the so-called “breast cancer gene” responsible for Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a preventative double mastectomy. They also own the patent on a similar breast cancer gene called BRCA2. Moreover, these gene patents also give Myriad a monopoly on testing for these genes.
At present a suit cancer groups have filed to invalidate these patents is being heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. Cancer advocates argue that it’s illegal and unethical for biotech companies to patent nature. Joseph Stiglitz has written in Slate that allowing Myriad to hold exclusive patents for BRCA1 and BRCA2 removes the opportunity for other scientists to come up with better and cheaper tests. In this way, they make the tests less widely available and possibly prevent women from knowing they carry these genes and taking preventive measures”.
In the U.S. a full test for each of these genes costs about $3,000. Private insurance policies may (or may not) cover the cost. But this highlights the problem. Access to those things that give us life, be they medical tests for someone like Angelina Jolie or creative processes as in the case of Pissarro and painters, are less likely to be controlled by the state in the western world today, and more likely to be controlled privately by those seeking to maximize profit and market share. Myriad Genetics is the Durand-Ruel of the gene world. They seek, in all their creativity, to control the distribution of golden eggs so that they are able to control the goose that lays them.
So what’s the point of all this? The point is that painters today are quite aware of the great boogie-man of “censorship” when it is government doing the controlling. But what we totally ignore are the private enterprise controllers who shape what we do, how we do it, and who we are. Not long ago I was explaining to a painter the method of painting that I teach. One of its virtues, I offered, was that it affords the painter “a great deal of control.” My artist friend recoiled at the mention of the word “control.” It was as if I had said that the method I teach gives you a deadly bacterium. “Control” over what a painter does, painters will declare, is to be avoided like – well – like the plague. And so it goes: painters today, unknowingly –or perhaps I should say unreflectively – embrace practices that control the very creative processes that could give them life. “To be an artist today,” I heard someone say recently, “you really need to get into marketing.” No, I thought to myself; that would be an entrepreneur (who bends every creative urge to meet the schedule, aims, and interests of a myriad of agents and investors and consumers), not an artist (whose only interest is taking the next step in her unfolding). The entrepreneur is someone who plays the private enterprise game, establishes points of market control – monopoly control if possible, and is someone who is both market and profit driven. The artist is someone who seeks freedom from the control that market-driven entrepreneurs, market-driven investors, all those people who control exhibitions-exposure-competitions, and all those people who grab you by the short hairs require.
“Here’s the work I do to make money. And here’s my own work,” is the refrain of so many painters. Oh crapola. What kind of creative people are we if we slink along as a servile folowing half the day and during the other half hope to find ourselves? “Freedom” was the clarion call of the Impressionists, be it from public or private centers of power. But guess what? We are taught that the only source of censorship is public; private enterprise is always good. We are taught, too, that the Impressionists were about the end result, the brush strokes, or the mode: going outside. This is not surprising, but it is appalling history. Here’s the deeper truth: the Impressionists said screw you to power – both to the state and the entrepreneur (whom they politely referred to as the bourgeoisie). We know our self-worth, they declared, and we will find an independent means of entering upon the scene of history. The scandal that still instructs us today was not about their paintings. It was about their disobedience.
Flowers are great to paint. I love painting them. But, and this is a big fat BUT, if you are not careful, they will quickly destroy the artistry within you. Let me explain.
I should alert the reader that I am writing from an Impressionist point of view. So let us recall some basic principles of Impressionism. Virtually to a person, they were explicit in their condemnation of the literal, which is to say, their paintings were not intended to be stories or social commentary (despite the gazillions of books to the contrary. The tendency is to assume that all realism is a kind of photo-journalism; hence, it must be literal. Or the converse, that if it is not literal, one must paint out of one’s head. Students of Impressionism would do well to pay more attention to what the artists themselves said. Pissarro lamented, for example, that most people only see the “subject” in his paintings. Monet talked endlessly about his need to convey his feelings. “We paint not to paint the subject,” Cèzanne reminded everyone, “but to realize sensations.”
So here’s Principle Number 1, so often articulated by Monet: Don’t see the thing before you. Or to put it another way, there are no flowers, just line and color that become prompts for us to respond to emotionally and realize feelings in the moment that our brush touches the canvas. If one loves flowers and wants to paint flowers, one is already in trouble because one will try like crazy to make a picture of flowers. So challenge Number 1, when you paint flowers don’t see flowers.
The second challenge in painting something that one is so focused on is that one is apt to neglect everything else. Principle Number 2: there is no such thing as background or tabletop or vases that play supporting roles. There are none of those things. There are no supporting roles. There is just line and color. Every square inch of a canvas ought to look as though the painter was fully involved with that square inch. Challenge Number two: everything else in the painting ought to reveal a fascination and an infatuation equal to the blasted flowers.
Principle Number Three: We are artists so do not paint what everyone else can see, ie, the obvious. Degas said that we don’t paint what we see but what we make others see. Okay, everyone can see the beauty in a sunset or a young child and, you guessed it, the “beautiful colors” in flowers. So what is an artist going to make the viewer see beyond the obvious? Challenge Number Three: say something about flowers that most people don’t see, and about that which moves you.
Let me give you some examples. First, I will show you some of my work (not the best example but it’s handy) and then I will show you some images by Monet.
The details on the left were taken from the image above. I chose these to show you that I was not seeing flowers as much as color and movement. In other words, I didn’t draw with the color but placed bits of various colors on the canvas as I engaged the subject emotionally, not seeing flowers, not looking for results but just enjoying my vision and moving through the process. Notice also that I have left parts of the canvas open in order to kick up that sense of light.
In these details I wanted to show that I did find other parts of the subject matter fascinating, certainly as fascinating to me as the flowers. Wait, there are no flowers! You see, and this brings us back to Challenge Number three: I am saying to the viewer, I want to make you see the beauty of the cloth and the colors of the grass and the reflections and colors in the vase: they are not separate from those red and white things in the vase. It’s all alive. It’s all dancing. And it’s all there, available to everyone. But if you think you are painting flowers, you will see none of it.
Now let’s go to a real painter and look at details of some of his work. Okay, Claude, you’re on:
It’s pretty obvious. Monet isn’t seeing flowers but realizing feelings. He’s intensely alive, which comes first, and so is his work, which then follows as a by-product of the experience.
Second, you can see even in these details how he is enamored with everything around the flowers. No supporting roles here. It’s all one thing. And it’s in virtue of his non-literal approach that he is showing us something we may not have seen had we been standing where he was: flowers are movement. They are swirling around, dancing, along with everything else.
I hope you don’t misinterpret all of this as instructions on how to paint flowers. You paint flowers the same way you would paint a nose or water or pavement on a city sidewalk. You see, painting is not about the subject matter. Painting is an activity where one lets go in her own particular way, realizing feelings that only she, as specific individual, could possibly realize given her age and experiences and needs. Yes there are techniques to learn, a craft to learn, but if you were only to get very good at those things, your work would look competent and probably boring. Painting is about learning new ways to be free and by that I mean new ways to be more you, more sincere, even if that means marching to your own drum.
Let me leave you with Monet’s thoughts that make contact to what I’m trying to suggest here:
“Paint as you see nature yourself. If you don’t see nature right with an individual feeling, you will never be a painter, and all the teaching cannot make you one [emphasis added].”