How Paint Quality Impacts Emotional Content - Lessons from Rembrandt's Blood Stain

Lucretia_1666Rembrandt - 1666 version of the Death of Lucretia


Every student of art encounters Art History at some point, and finds himself either overwhelmed or trapped by the tenants of one style compared to another. Perhaps it is inevitable, in that picture making is always influenced by what has been previously produced. But in this modern world, the visual image as a form of communication has been dissected, manipulated, and used to the point where we are eye blind, much like the student on a museum tour who goes in star struck and comes out with a nonchalant shrug saying, “Oh, another Michelangelo.”  Sometimes a work of art translates into a powerful emotional experience, but more often than not, there is a five second glance of disinterest and lack of connection.

So how, then, is the artist to overcome that five second glance? Many competing concepts must be put together to create a successful painting, extending beyond just understanding how to achieve certain results. Throughout my art development I have been guided by a quote attributed to Lee Krasner: “I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point. And, as the limitations are something called pigment and canvas, let’s see if I can do it.”

Great artists from the past achieved high levels of this sense of “aliveness”, and one of the ways they did it is through paint quality. The temptation to use Rembrandt’s self-portrait as an example of paint quality is a persistent one. With the artist’s thick swirls of paint that appear sculptural, you see basic concepts of thick impasto contrasted with thin layers of delicate color. But using this painting as an example traps the artist in a sweeping generalization. It isn’t only about the contrast in paint thickness, or the differences in the brush stroke.

I recently came across an article by Simon Schama, exploring the idea behind How Rembrandt Dressed Women for Death, which directed me to Rembrandt’s 1666 painting, The Suicide of Lucretia.  The paint quality in this painting jolts the viewer between the sumptuous depictions of fabric and textures in Lucretia’s dress, to the visceral impact of the blood stain on her bodice: edges of the stain, where the plasma has separated with a lighter tinge, highlighting the weave of the delicate fabric that could not protect her body, as the deepening red depression sinks visually into the flesh, turning a dark crimson in a ragged knife blade shape. That, for me, is visual impact achieved by a master of paint quality

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If painting is more than a flat visual perception, then the artist must find some understanding of what that means. I believe that art should not be limited to what the eye sees but how to depict through the senses what the eye sees. And while I might be a toddler in terms of art, having just learned to walk and now exploring my environment on uncertain legs, I understand that artists mistake generalizations for fact and rework ideas that are worn out. Avoiding generalizations might require the artist to assess his core intentions, what is meaningful to his work, and how his subject and technique addresses both his personal freedom and the impact the work has upon the viewing public. And as a consequence, an artist’s personal style will evolve and change over time as realizations and concepts become internalized and expressed effectively.  We should expect it. Reach for it.

Reach for the understanding and ability to come as close as we can to the perfection of Rembrandt's blood stain.

 


River Road and Aesthetic Conviction

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River Road, oil, 18 x 24, 2015

 

In my last post we were talking about aesthetic conviction.  While I find this concept easier to understand when discussing figure or portrait painting, my passion is landscape.  I wanted to share some of the thinking that goes into a painting such as River Road. 

Why did I paint this:  In 1908, two competing railroad companies began laying track on opposite sides of the Deschutes River on a route that ran from the Columbia River to Bend.  One was the Oregon Trunk Road, on the west side of the river, the other was the Deschutes Railroad.  At several points along the way both needed the same land.  Conflicts erupted, including blowing up of supply lines, skirmishes and gun battles, injuries and death.   There is currently one working rail track in use today, but the remains of abandoned rail beds are still present and used for recreation.   It's a little known element of Oregon's wild west history.

 

What this painting is about: While I was attracted to the story, this is not a historical painting. The warm winter light, the red and ocher and sage, the reflections on the river are a metaphor for optimism and a sense of adventure in the face of uncertainty.  The landscape is the message.  It speaks of endurance, and the transience of  human experience. 

Thank you to Oil Painters of America, for awarding River Road an Honorable Mention in the 2015 Fall On-Line Showcase. 


The Importance of Gravitas

Back in 2001, when I began to study art seriously, I asked how gravitas could be achieved in painting. The answer differed depending upon which teacher I asked. Some said it was subject matter. Others based their assessment upon technique. Still others said only the Old Masters achieved gravitas. None of these answers were particularly helpful. While they skirted around the question, no single point of view could explain gravitas, because gravitas is a word that attempts to define emotional connection.

Over the years I have come to believe that gravitas relates most specifically to how well the artist can transform an emotional idea into its visual equivalent. Paul Gauguin is quoted as saying that Degas’s nudes were “chaste. But his women in washtubs! ...just the way it is at home.” This is the difference between illustration and connection.  When we recognize in a work of art the emotion, the sensation, as something familiar, known - this is connection.  And if I were to summarize the descriptions found in books, in lectures from a few Masters, and the student-artists who work toward the same goals I have as a continuing student-artist, I would say that the primary attribute of gravitas is aesthetic conviction - another vague term that doesn't answer questions but raises new ones.

We all set the same goals, to do a better job than the day before. Sounds easy, and on most days easy wins out and the painting is a failure. But we still pick up the brush and try again, chasing the possibilities, as well as the joy. Gravitas, or aesthetic conviction, becomes the goal toward which we struggle, and the thing we don’t see is that our contemporary context also plays a role. The everyday world full of work demands, traffic delays and constant irritation bear little connection to the contemplative world of the artist. We cannot retreat to the ivory tower of the studio. Our work must relate to the society in which we live, to the people who might view it, and that pool of individuals is so vast and so complex it’s overwhelming to think about aesthetic conviction. Whose aesthetic do we appeal to?  This person's, that one, those over there?

So we have no real choice. We must develop our own conviction regardless. And when I paint better than I think I can, I recognize the underlying motive. I am not thinking about being “successful,” or appealing to the public, or a jury, or even trying to make a painting that is better than the one I did yesterday. I am only thinking that this painting is the painting I need to do.

Research demonstrates that Masters achieve their highest creativity either after years of creative endeavor, or through the furious passion of youth. Both speak to the need for technique as well as emotional investment – the soul of the work. Where younger artists might be more impulsive and risk-taking, older artists are equally passionate with greater self-acceptance and depth of understanding. This is the research saying it, not me. But I do know that without one – technique - you cannot communicate the other – emotional communication.  This is true regardless of age.

In my experience, it has taken only moments to understand some artistic concepts, but years to understand them enough to begin to put them into practice. And even now I do not fully comprehend. But the idea that I cannot hope to create something worthwhile if I cannot use the visual language required, remains a constant. To that end, this is what I have found to be important:

  • Decisions are based on thinking, and thinking is based on knowledge, so there can never be an end to learning or practice or experimentation. You must know what you can do with the materials, how to do it to best effect, and why you want to do it. Only then can the artist hope to communicate the qualities of human emotional experience through paint. As for taste, it is a concept that changes with time, but sensitivity is different. An artist who strives for sensitivity becomes expressive, different from the rest.
  • It’s easy to choose a subject to paint. It’s imperative to know what you are painting.  In the book, How I Paint: Secrets of a Sunday Painter, Thomas D Buechner (1926 - 2010), a painter's painter who became the the director of the Brooklyn Museum, has given one of the best descriptions of artistic conviction I have ever read.  He describes his painting of an angular, awkward ten-year-old boy named Ian: "He is the subject, but the painting is really about uncertainty, about not knowing the future...the subject was chosen for a specific purpose, to serve as a metaphor for this confusion, which influenced the pose, colors, shapes, and textures. In other words, Ian was the message."

But this is my list, and it is not complete. Nor is it as important as the one you make for yourself.  Stuart Davis (1894-1964) is quoted as saying, "The act of painting is not a duplication of experience, but the extension of experience on the plane of formal invention." Such is the purpose of art.  It is what we know.  It's the getting there that is hard.

 


When the Thrush Calls You

I woke up today to the sound of the bird tapping at my window, my own personal Hitchcock movie.  This bird - of the thrush family, I think - has taken on the task of cleaning the insects from the web that clings to the clerestory window, too high for me to clean by ordinary means.  He sits on the edge of the pergola, then flies up - tap, tap, tap - then back down, over and over.  At first I thought he was tricked by the reflection of clouds and was flying away home: by the end of October, it's too cold for most birds to stick around.  But the diligence with which he works -  moving his way across the upper quadrant of glass, where the webs are filled with summer gnats - tells me this is not a bird misinterpreting the reflection of reality.

I tell this story because it reminds me of something I heard, once.  Vision, or inspiration, is given to the person who sees value in an action that others view as pointless.  Perseverance, too, is given, for it takes determination to keep tap, tap, tapping at an invisible barrier that will not let you pass, if that is what you are doing, or tap, tap, tapping because there is something else you are trying to achieve.  The fact that my thrush repeats his daily ritual despite reflections that change, weather that shifts, tells me he is not concerned with illusions. There is intent behind his repetition. 

I will not bore you with my personal struggle, because while I might feel I am done with art, apparently art is not done with me.  My more passionate arguments are an effort to convince myself that perseverance is more than transient experience, but you know as well as I how hard it is to hold on through the mundane challenges - suppliers stop making that favorite canvas, you can't find a brand of paint anywhere. Even your family has turned to glancing at your unsold paintings and then asking sympathetically if you've run out of bare walls yet. And it occurs to me now that my excuses are so pathetic, they are downright funny, and my mouth can't stop twitching.  Art School should have covered Art Crisis, but instead, they leave it as something we all face down, either limping back to the sidelines or beating against the glass.

Asher B. Durand (1976 - 1886), in his book on Landscape Painting, talks a lot about the personality of the artist and the unsolved problems in art.  He quotes the noted painter Jules Breton: "Every new picture brings a new problem, and who knows if we may be able to solve it.  But if there were no new problems we should all cease painting; for there would be no more art." 

I wish I could tell you to do this and you will achieve that, but I can't.  I can't give you the answers to the unique problems you will face.  I can tell you there is a difference, as Durand stated, between a craftsman and an artist, and each must decide what type he wants to be.  That you will probably never think you are good enough but that shouldn't prevent you from trying.  That there is no finish line, literally or figuratively, after which you "have arrived." 

I can, and will write about a lot of things. 

But the most important thing is this:

You either fly up and tap at the window, or you fly away home. 

 

 

 

 


Who’s Britain’s best amateur artist? Press Release from Flavours Holidays For New Competition

Information from the great team at Flavours Holidays in Scotland about Their upcoming Big Painting Competition

 

"While there are many painting competitions available for aspiring professional painters in the UK, it is very difficult for amateur artists to exhibit their work. That’s why we’re running our Big Painting Competition – we want to give a platform for these artists to show their artwork and want to find Britain’s best amateur artist!

The competition will open on the 28th September and close on the 31st October. 5 winners will be selected by our art tutors and selected participants will be invited to exhibit their work here in Edinburgh."

For more about the competition: 

 https://www.flavoursholidays.co.uk/competition-terms-and-conditions/

https://www.flavoursholidays.co.uk/blog/flavours-big-painting-competition/ 

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Flavours Painting student in Tuscany

With a team of inspirational art teachers our Italian painting holidays are great for all levels.

Find out more about our painting holidays: https://www.flavoursholidays.co.uk/painting-holidays/

Read what Jenny Eclair wrote in the Daily Mail here

About Flavours

 Our painting holidays offer a unique blend of expert teaching and free time where you can be inspired by Italy’s dramatic colorful landscape. Flavours offers week-long stays in Tuscany, Venice and Sicily with our inspiring painting tutors.

Flavours Holidays - Authentic. Inspiring. Passionate.

 

 


Has Art Become a Spectator Sport?

If the past fifteen years have revealed anything, it is that I am “not in Kansas anymore.” Between the ageist view that art is the “deterrent to dementia,” and the proposal that legitimate art must be raised to a Ph.D. level, older artists are caught in the middle.  Suddenly upended with new expectations, we must evolve, while struggling with the fear of marginalization, lost potential and artistic irrelevance.

As an artist who did not begin the practice until the age of fifty, I find this idea challenging.  Some academics suggest that, with age, the artist becomes more contemplative and less competitive.  I have not found this to be true.  Perhaps I am not old enough.  Perhaps you are not old enough either, and that in itself is a good thing.  But it is also unsettling, the “not in Kansas” thing.  Traditional pathways for upward mobility have disappeared, replaced by something else entirely.  Where there used to be collaborative gate keepers, we are now considering the role of advertising and juried exhibitions in the struggle for visibility.  And the public perception - as Robert Storr says, colleges have for decades promoted the idea that art plays an “accessory role” to the “higher realms of mathematics and science.” Forget centuries of history, theory or abstract narratives.  Can you produce a video, or entertain the public?  One weekend, dozens of artists, all furiously turning out artwork – who couldn’t love that?  And this brings us back to the idea of Art as a Spectator Sport.

I have nothing against plein air events or videos of any kind. In fact the resurgence of Plein Air Painting as a legitimate genre has been a boon for some artists and the collector base supporting them.  I’m talking about those who paint part time because they have to work and worry about fading away on the fringes of the “relevant” art world.  But change, you will recall, is the only thing that stays the same.  The sudden abandonment of the French Academies following the immense popularity of Impressionism destroyed more than one artistic life.  Look at the millions of visual images with the capacity to catch and hold your attention.  Art still holds power, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is more akin to access.  Over the centuries, access was controlled, the way water is controlled through dams and culverts, pipes and faucets in kitchens.  There was always someone who regulated the flow, and those who received it valued the consistency and appreciated the benefits. No bad water in the glass.  When you wanted a drink you knew what to do: turn on the faucet, fill the glass.

Now take away the control.  Visual artifacts are like rain, falling everywhere, millions of drops that vary by size and velocity but, well, essentially are the same thing and free for the taking.  There is no way to describe the feeling of being invisible while compelled to be a visual communicator, which is exactly where the “Art as Spectator Sport” mindset puts you.  Are you falling for that?  Is it any different than the research that proves “doing art” puts off the onset of dementia for about ten years, essentially diminishing the work of thousands of artists over the age of sixty to the equivalent of doing cross word puzzles?  No, if you accepted the offer to become an artist then you accepted the rules.  You don’t do it for recognition.  You don’t do it for money.  Only you know what – or who – you do it for. 

Along with mindset, there are a few other things of importance.

Training can take years, but that is normal and in fact training never ends.

Teachers can’t often teach what you want to know, or even what you need to know, but that does not mean you don’t need a teacher now and then.

The act of creating is more than meditation, but only if you are also filled with awareness of the unpredictability of insight.  If it is only meditation, then it is self-occupation.

No matter how much practice, without knowledge of formal training and informed self-critique, then practice is just meditation, also known as self-occupation.

And this quote from Ann Lauterbach:

You cannot plan for the new, since by definition it arrives out of the conditions that give rise to it. Now, on the other hand, also arrives out of the conditions that give rise to it, but instead of these conditions being akin to the prow of a ship (the Great Ship New), they are more akin to the buoyant waters that hold the ship up, in which horizontal surface (space) and vertical depth (time) are in a mutable, ambient relation—the relation, we might say, of scale. Where your particular ship is on the waters of Now is what you need to discover when you are making a work of art.

 

Where the Lauterbach quote originated, and what I am reading:  Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited and with an introduction by Steven Henry Madoff.  

There is no way to avoid controversy if seeking enlightenment. 

 

 


Three Sources of Inspiration

August is Artist Appreciation Month. 

Most of the artists I know list their inspiration sources as either subject matter or style.  We often don't consider the other influences available. There are artists who inspire us through their life experiences.  Others inspire through their innovation.  The primary inspiration for me, though,  comes from the originality and depth of artistic thinking. One significant influence in my present work is Hans Hofmann

Hofmann was a visionary artist and teacher, often described as the leader of the New York School of Abstract-Expressionist Painting: some of his most notable students were Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers, and Louise Nevelson.  Those who know my work may be surprised by this.  But I see it as an example of how an artistic philosophy is not limited to a specific style of painting. 

On Movement, by Hofmann

Movement develops from depth sensation.  There are movements into space and movements forward, out of space, both in form and in color.  The product of movement and counter movement is tension.  When tension - working strength - is expressed, it endows the work of art with the living effect of coordinated, though opposing, forces.

~ excerpt from Search for the Real -Hans Hofmann, edited by Sara T. Weeks and Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr.  The M.I.T. Press

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Over There, 12 x 16, Sue Favinger Smith

The Power of Artistic Diversity

Here are some inspiring artists that have recently crossed my path.

Brandon Kidwell.  This Florida photographer describes himself simply as "a husband, father, son brother, friend, part time philosopher and freelance photographer," but his art reaches right to the heart of life. 

Jacob Collins: Seceding From The Photographic Sensibility. This  fascinating 9-part series from At the Confluence Where Painting & Photography Meet is one of the best discussions I've come across in years regarding the interplay between imagery, philosophy, and the intent of art.

Take Five - LINEA, Lessons from five paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, by

As well as these inspiring artists:

Ann Lofquist, with her evocative landscapes.

Pan Yu-laing,with a truly inspiring life story.

And  the artist Patience Brewer, who took her inspiration from a lifetime, followed her passion and developed a thriving business. 

So What About You?

So what about you?  Who inspired you in areas of philosophy, resilience, determination, courage, individuality or innovation?  Write a blog post about it.  Send your links to me and I will post them.  Lets get that conversation going!

 

 

 


The Other Side of Vulnerability

I’ve talked before about a workshop I attended, and how important it is for an artist to seek out new experiences to further their understanding.  Sometimes it feels as if doing such a thing is a great risk.  You know the sort of self-talk that goes on about fitting in or painting anything worthwhile or absolutely failing.  It requires opening that soft spot where you are truly vulnerable and human.

I recall attending the first evening event where students met up with old friends and new instructors.  I am awkward in such situations, but I had been contacted by a fellow blogger who was also attending, so I scanned the name tags until I had an opportunity to introduce myself to her.  Her look was blank.  I expanded beyond my name and mentioned the blog and her emails.  Still nothing.  As polite moments of conversation followed, I realized she had no idea who I was. 

Immediately following, one of the mentors passed by and asked if I had met any of the instructors yet.  Since I had not, she offered to introduce me to Rose Frantzen. 

Shaking hands, I mentioned that, yes, this was my first workshop, and I wasn’t sure what to do.  “Really?” she asked, and then announced that I should follow her back to the studio so she could show me “what it’s all about.” What followed was a ten minute one-on-one instruction period where I sat beside one of my major artistic influences and watched her paint.   

Awkwardness is part of our experience. Too often we use it to avoid risk. Life doesn't ask us to look inward, but outward toward all the possibilities that exist.  Vulnerability is born out of fear: the other side of vulnerability is generosity.

I was reminded of that experience when I recently came across this article by Jerry Fresia, titled 5 Ways to Develop as an Artist.  Here is an excerpt:

And it is when you cannot be bothered with product, you will look about the studio and find a few pieces that have a life. Your life. And so you gather them up and market them. And then after 30 years of painting, you will have had a career and the “later” you will have emerged. You will have grown. And you will have been an artist.

And it starts by taking the risk to be vulnerable. 


Creating a Nurturing Environment: Tips for the Self-Mentoring Artist

Years ago I went to the Impressionist Exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, where I discovered the artist Marie Bracquemond.  The reclusive Marie had great talent, but her career was brief.  She was married to the famous conservative engraver, Felix Bracquemond, who, according to historical records, was resentful of Marie's friendship with Impressionist greats such as Monet, Degas, and Gauguin. Over the years Marie endured intense artistic criticism from her husband, and became discouraged over the constant strife.  Her painting, Portrait (Lady in White),  was exhibited, along with On the Terrace at Sevres, in the fifth Impressionist exhibition in 1880, but she exhibited only one more time with the Impressionists, in 1886, before she ceased painting altogether in 1890.  According to the art critic Gustove Geffroy, Marie was "one of the three great ladies of Impressionism," but she eventually succumbed to her husband's disapproval.  Consequently, there are few Bracquemond paintings in public collections.

Life as an aspiring artist is complicated.  With all the misconceptions about an art career, or success, or authenticity, it's impossible to navigate the pitfalls without some kind of comfort and support. Partners can be our staunchest supporters, but they also present our biggest challenges.  Emotional conflict is uncomfortable, requiring us to be our own best mentors, navigating between a passion for art and a passion for family.

  • Painting is an extension of who you are.   While the drip drip drip of disapproval from others can be demoralizing, unless we acknowledge that art is not a priority for everyone, we will never be able to escape the need for approval.  The work you do in the studio isn't about impressing your partner.  It's about your humanity and your ability to express that in a visual form.  Focus on the value in what you do: prioritize it the same way others value traditional wage-paid work.
  • Honor your partner's needs, but ask for honor in return.  It's not easy for those who don't understand the intense drive that keeps the artist at the easel.  Art can be consuming.  But it's also beneficial to break from the work and enjoy the company of those around you.  Keeping your life in balance will help you keep your successes and failures in balance, and give you the resiliency to carry on. 
  • Work toward a simple form of financial security.  Take small steps to set aside the financial reserves you need to cover the cost of the materials that will allow you to create for a six month period.  If this means working and saving more, the pay-off is the lack of worry over money, as well as the independence of not needing permission to use joint resources if your partner is not supportive.
  • You define the value in your work.   By it's very definition, competition is a comparison of your work to that of others, and it can be exhausting.  Altering your mindset away from running after the successful artists and paying more attention to understanding your own intention will allow for greater growth.  Get feedback from those you admire, enter competitions, but for heaven's sake don't use it as a negative judgement of your own work.  Tell your insecurities to find someplace else to live, you have work to do. 

There is a seductive romance to the story of being an artist.  Life, though, is as real as it's going to get right now.  It is the daily effort, the small steps you take that matter, the personal relationships you honor and develop along the way.  Making art is part of what makes you human.  All the successes, support, discouragement and failures make up the steps in your journey from here to there.  It's at the heart of being an artist, the act of paying attention to what matters in the world, then showing it to others. There will always be mediocre work that gets attention, and great work that passes by unacknowledged.   But while it is about the work, it also isn't. It's about the purpose of life that isn't easily explained. 


Pretty Pictures or Something More?

I attended an event where one of the speakers remarked, “I live in a town of 4000, of which 8000 are artists.” The laughter soon faded as the meaning began to sink in: “There are too many who think they are artists.”  And here we were, aspiring artists, listening to that message from a Master.

Perhaps that’s not a bad idea to consider by those who venture on the artistic path.  By acknowledging that creativity abounds, that each of us brings desire to the table, there are important questions that begged to be asked. 

Does innate talent play a larger role in one's success as an artist than practice, passion, determination and resiliency? I have wondered about this question throughout the more than a decade and a half that I have been writing about art, and I haven’t yet come up with a solid answer.  But what I have done is look to those who have been recognized as “artists” to try to identify what might be unique about them.  And patterns begin to emerge.

They see clearly the end result they want to achieve, and they follow their own direction to get there.  Whether this relates to style, to starting or finishing, to subject matter, what they value most is clarifying their own vision of what it “will look like” when it is finished. 

They have a master's understanding of the tools they use, the historical foundations behind their approach, the mechanics in producing a finished appearance that is both uniquely theirs and uniquely beautiful.

They bring elements that are both personal and universal into the visual message. They know what they are in an intangible way, and it is the underlying support of their painting.

They approach the canvas, paper, clay with a confidence and ease that reveals the level of understanding they have achieved. 

Is this talent? Or a combination of various factors? I found this interview with Daniel Sprick extremely interesting: in it, he said, "One of the things I like to do as an artist is to challenge my own preconceptions."  Between believing in the 10,000 hours concept and grinding out a painting a day - both ideas which may or may not have merit - when do we ever talk about what constitutes substance, authenticity, poetic sensitivity or contemporary relevance except in the vaguest terms?  However you want to articulate it, there is something that some people do that the majority of us have not considered doing.  We can label it as talent, or knowledge and experience, but they are able to produce paintings year after year that impress us.  Call it gravitas, call it courage to produce work that speaks with your own voice, call it an ability to bring life into a flat surface and colored oil - these are conversations more artists should have, something we ought to start amongst ourselves as we search for our own answers. 

An artist needs the craft.  She needs an thorough awareness of art history to better understand the influences that appeal to her.  Seeking out and sharing the sources of information and inspiration, such as the "Liminal Spaces: A Conversation with Daniel Sprick" post by Elana Hagler, and posted on the Painting Perceptions: commentary on perceptual painting blog, can help contribute to the important connections we artists need to make to further our personal understanding of the work we have chosen to do. 

Please share your favorite resources in the comments section below. 

And Thank You for reading today.

"Fall, oil on canvas, SFSmith 2015  IMG_0874 sm copy