Sunday, June 29, 2014

Painting my way through Iceland - some reflections on Day 5

Well, at least painting my way through a very small part of this tear-jerkingly beautiful country. Driving is slow going when you take paintings instead of taking photographs. Slow but delicious.

Today is my last full day here, and I feel like I've been in a dream since I first arrived and camped in a windy lava field overlooking the ocean. The blues and greens of this landscape have somewhat eluded me, and the unexpected forms and compositions have coaxed me to let go of the horizon line that the Western United States has instilled in me. And the lupine. Lupine knows how to do it here, draping the hillsides in a heavenly lavender glow that offers a gentle contrast to the surrounding deeper reds, purples and greens.

Lupine coated hillside up close
Yesterday I hit a low point in the morning, frustrated with not being able to capture the immensity and dreaminess of what was around me. I sat down at my computer to upload photographs after yet another blissful swim in the Blonduos public pool where I returned to reset my attitude (there is something in that water - I actually am typing this after a third swim which I formed my travel schedule of the last two days around). Sitting at my computer, I was wishing I had some photographs of my friend Samuel Paden's paintings. Samuel lived in Iceland part time for many years before recently settling in Boise where I was lucky to meet him - serendipitous timing for my Iceland yearnings. I needed to see the work of another artist who had taken on this landscape. There was no internet access here, but I randomly found some images he'd emailed me in my draft folder. I sat and stared at one of them, "White Sky with Violet Lake," and was stunned at discovering a whole new layer of his work. The image seems simple and primitive but a longer look reveals exquisitely clear observation and sophisticated simplification of form. I am not sure if it is a landscape in Iceland, Idaho or his native Africa, but the painting evokes elements of the Icelandic landscape I've been struggling to do justice to.
The experience of looking at this painting after a few days of traveling and painting (some 25 tinyExpanses into the trip) changed the game for me. And in a bigger sense than just this trip. It clarified the question I've been pondering on the road as I often do when I travel and paint - what is this urge to capture landscape? When the real thing is so grandious and perfect in itself what is this urge to create an image of it?

White Sky with Violet Lake - is that lupine or water? 
Looking at "White Sky with Violet Lake" I recalled some thoughts I've been cultivating over the years as a compulsive Plein Air painter. The most challenging and important part of what we are doing when we paint what is in front of us is achieving clear observation, and honesty in the translation of experience. From observing something simple like the quality of a horizon line (how sharp is it, what is the angle...?) to grasping the big picture of an intricate landscape (of all the elements I am witnessing what relationships stand out as important to me?), painting from life is the process of defining one's own most true way of seeing the world and selecting priorities.

I remember a painting teacher (admittedly the same infamous one from the last blog) telling us that art is ethics. I always thought this was an overestimation of making art. But I am starting to agree. What we create is a reflection of our experience of the world, and that experience is created by how we process it. Every thought is a memory - we experience the world through our senses and then our brains process, or remember, and interpret, those sensations. The highest compliment in drawing class from this professor was "that is well-seen," (which is by the way an interesting echo of the story from which I found my last name -another story!). To live life seeing well - something to aspire to!

As I get ready to return to Boise, I am simultaneously nervous and excited to get back to the studio, to see how the prolonged process of integrating new visual landscapes into my work will proceed, wanting to hang on to the experiences I've had here as I return to something more familiar. As any traveler feels towards an end of the trip, painter or not. Will my observation of the Boise foothills be notably altered? Will the colors of this landscape seep into my vision of the Wood River Valley? I hope so...

And as for Samuel, a big thanks for allowing his work here to accompany me on my journey. Boise is lucky to have him seeing the landscape of Idaho through his eyes and offering it to us. I can't wait to see what comes of that process. Check out his work at

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

a tinyExpanse architectural adventure.

Kiasma from Musiikkitalo

I was beside myself today, spending the morning painting between Kiasma, the museum designed by American architect Stephen Holl, and the Musiikkitalo, designed by LPR Architects in Turku. Earlier in my stay in Helsinki I have also had the pleasure of painting the Kamppi Chapel, Turku's fortress, the Turun Linna, and numerous street views of Helsinki. I have been amazed that the process of painting these beautiful buildings reveal the apparent simplicity of their forms to be deceptive - the elegance of their designs as a coherent form can make the incredibly sophisticated details of the design hard to see at first glance. I suppose what I've learned from spending some time in this city is that good design does this - the form of a well-designed thing can be so harmonious and perfectly functional that it is almost not noticed - for me, at least.
Until I try to paint it. Kiasma has been the most striking example of this. It reminds me of a children's wooden puzzle, where the pieces snuggle together so perfectly and together form a simple shape. In Kiasma's case, beautiful light-filled designed exhibition spaces snuggle together into a smooth whole, which reminds me a little of the belly of a shark. 
I love the experience of painting a building, or any object for that matter, for the sense of intimacy I form with the object. It feels like I am conducting a course of study with the artist who made it, understanding why this angle is juxtaposed next to that one, how complicated the problem and how clever the solution. 
Even if you don't paint, my challenge to you is to try sketching your favorite building and gain a completely new relationship with it that will enhance your experience of it forever.

Kamppi Chapel
Mikael Agricola Kirkko
Turun Linna
Musiikkitalo and Finnish
National Museum from Kiasma

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Creative Habits

My college painting professor at Pomona College was convinced that if he maintained the same routine every day - the keystone being eating the same burrito for lunch day after day - he would be able to create his best work. At the time I thought he was a little nutso, which of course in many ways he was, but after recently reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg I have come to see my professor's quirky inflexibility in a different light.

The effectiveness of his system had nothing to do with what burrito he ate. It was just important that he ate the same one everyday. That way he had one less decision to make - it was automated. He had more energy to think about the work he was going to create in the studio, to notice the quality of the light coming through the trees. As Duhigg explains, the more good habits you cultivate that free up your mental space and time for your most important work, the more effective you will be. And it starts by finding the most important "keystone" habits that will have a domino effect on all your other habits. (A disclaimer here - I'm not claiming that eating the same burrito everyday is healthy but it seemed to work for him).

Before reading Duhigg's book, I held the belief that really successful people didn't have time to think about the small stuff in their lives - what kind of toilet paper to buy, the most sensible morning routine. But I have realized that really successful people sometimes actually obsess over these little details because they know that some of them are going to have an exponential effect on their lives - on how they make the rest of their decisions throughout the day. Streamlining processes, maintaining a healthy body and rested mind - these are incredibly influential habits to form.

As freedom and spontaneity-craving artists, it is sometimes difficult to reign ourselves in with habitual practices. Won't this constrict our creativity? For me when I am successful at finding a healthy habit I can stick with, it does just the opposite - more the energy conservation my professor was experiencing. Even better is to find a keystone habit that is a creative act itself.

My most successful keystone habit over the last several years - one which I credit for eliminating my significant collection of day jobs to allow me to be a full-time artist - is to create a piece of art every day. This started in 2008, shortly after getting divorced at the age of 28. Somewhat organically, I began creating one drawing every day. Not allowing myself the excuse that I was too tired from teaching yoga, coaching gymnastics, and substitute teaching middle school (often all on the same day), I unfailingly pulled out a 4"x6" piece of paper that I had made stacks and stacks of and began to draw, usually shortly before bed. I drew the most beautiful thing I could remember seeing that day.

Painting aboard the "Mariella" on the Baltic Sea
This keystone habit of drawing before bed led me to wake up excited for what I might see that day to draw later on. It made me more observant and appreciative throughout my day, and at peace falling asleep, knowing that I had created at least one act of art making that day. Little by little this habit was leading me closer to my goal of painting full time.

Looking back this was a transformative habit. Today that particular, routinized way of coping with a difficult time has become deeply engrained as a joyful part of my daily life. From my daily art-making habit, my line of miniature plein air paintings sprung, and is at this very moment allowing me to travel through Finland and Iceland creating art and having pop-up shows wherever I am. It allows me to very quickly connect to a place and understand what its residents love about it, and through this I connect to the residents themselves. My life has somewhat effortlessly formed itself around one simple habit that sometimes takes  as little as five minutes.

And it's the little things that I love about it - you all know about my painting kit from a post detailing its contents a few months ago. (It now has a name, Georgia). This little box has become my most prized possession. It offers endless hours of enjoyment, or just a quick salvation from a stressful day. I love the pop of the wet painting storage box when opened, finding my brushes just how I left them, familiar and clean. All my favorite colors greeting me. The satisfying snap of the Sigg box lid when I close it. I started creating art daily for the relief it brought me, and the satisfaction of working towards a goal. Now the process itself has become the reward. It is a perfect manifestation of what Duhigg explains as the cue-process-reward mechanism. I see something beautiful (cue). I make a painting (process). I feel at peace and have a little piece of art to share (reward). Ultimately process and reward merge and the habit becomes the reward.

For artists striving to make their work a bigger part of their lives, creating a keystone habit that directly inspires their creative process is one piece of advice I can really attest to. Give yourself the luxury of an enjoyable, meaningful daily practice that will help you feel more connected to the artist in you.