Originality and Influence: Finishing Hearst Castle View #1


Don’t worry about your originality. You could not get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick to you and show you up for better or for worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.
– Robert Henri from The Art Spirit

I used to be a big Radiohead fan. I recall when Kid A came out the band talked about how they just wanted to make an album like Aphex Twin, an electronic artist I wasn’t into, and the result was Kid A. Listening to then side by side I guess you can see some influence, but Aphex Twin would never have made Kid A. That was a distinctly Radiohead album. They had a true enough sense of themselves that even if they tried to mimic they never lost the underlying Radiohead-ness. And that Radiohead-ness resonated with the fans to the point that it became part of them as well.

When I was writing, I dealt with the same thing. I just wanted to write a book like Calvino at one time, then it was just wanting to write like Cesare Pavese and Alberto Moravia. Both of my novels, despite being different in subject, style, and influence are I think/hope still very much mine (how good they are is another matter). Thinking of Elvis Costello’s homage to Stax Records–Get Happy–that is still very much an Elvis Costello album, to work “after” someone else is not to mimic but to understand what that artist means to me.

Here I am now just trying to make a Sargent painting. Of course it’s a lot more that that, or at least different, and I have failed at that false goal anyway. I had other things in mind, my own way of seeing, my own developing abilities/limits, everything else that went into this, including my influences. To bring Robert Henri back into it:

All the past up to a moment ago is your legacy. You have a right to it. The works of ancient masters, those of the student next to you, the remark let drop a moment ago, all is experience.

I think this painting came out pretty well as mine. But that’s only part of it. What does the work say? What does it do? Does it have that animating element to make it not just mine, but the viewer’s as well? Does it resonate? That’s always the challenge, and maybe the thing that matters above all. Art is conversation as much as expression.

Thanks for reading.




I found some nice short lectures from the MFA in Boston on YouTube about John Singer Sargent’s Pomegranates and Gourds paintings, and the influence of “decoration.” He was working on a large mural at this time, and these paintings may have been in part a study in filling space without a clear focal point. On the gourds especially he uses a lot of opaque, and it’s very abstract. I started to try that out here with the flowers on the bushes in preparation for a lot more in the foreground and up the tree. Here’s where things stand tonight. It’s coming along roughly as I’d like it too, but the real fun is still to come. This will be good preparation for some plein air techniques once the weather gets better.

Thanks for reading.


Goals for a New Watercolor Project of California Route 1. Also, the First Painting–Elephant Seals of San Simeon

In The Art of Fiction John Gardner advocates above all else that a writer must not break the vivid continuous dream of a work of fiction (he exempts meta fiction from this rule). I always liked this idea. So much of writing is about editing, and this idea gives a great rule to follow when reading and revising. Anything that breaks the dream must be removed or fixed. It’s an instinct-based approach that can be honed by practice both in writing and in editing. A good “natural” writer will produce that vivid continuous dream more fluidly, so less re-shaping may be required. Dreams can take many forms and styles, and exist in or across many genres. The writer of the dream need only stick with that dream’s set of norms.

I have been thinking about this idea with my painting. I have done a scattering of subjects, working out techniques and styles. In some I hope that sense of a vivid dream has existed–I think most in my Old San Juan painting–but that dream hasn’t been continuous, and that’s what I want to strive for.

The Brooklyn Museum show of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors brought several dreams into focus.The thematic groupings, coupled with his lively almost magical style, stuck with me, and I have been studying his work closely since. I had a similar experience several years ago when the National Gallery had a Cezanne show. A lot to learn from those two.

So here is my project. I want to create series of paintings in a style that will create and perpetuate that sense of a vivid continuous dream. Like I wrote in my last post, I want to make an album that flows together, that’s both encompassing and varied, but very much unified. The unifying theme of this album will be California’s Route 1.

Two years ago we visited some very close friends in Santa Barbara. The landscape and the feeling of being there were so potent that I dream of living there someday. It was not enough just to visit. We spent a few days going from Santa Barbara to Monterey and back on Route 1, stopping in a few places along the way. I took a lot of photos, which I will filter through memory and paint. I won’t paint them in sequence, but I will approach them in an emerging unified style. On the blog I will post everything, though like with any album, not everything posted here will make the cut. I will arrange the final selection in a proper order, perhaps put them out in a short book if I think they’re good enough.

Below is my first work, shown in sequence as it developed, of elephant seals near San Simeon. The seals gather here to rest and fight–a groan and craning of the neck is about all I saw of it. The fighting is brief because rest seems to be most important to them. The way they arranged themselves while resting was interesting. Generally nestled in with each other but with some outliers. One could be forgiven for mistaking them for rocks.

In painting these I tried to handle the scene roughly, mixing swipes of the brush with some wet-in-wet work to convey an overall materiality. I was generally less precise, focusing on believability and composition over accuracy, though with the main seal in front I put in just enough detail to get it to read as a seal.

Also new in this work, and something I will continue in the rest of the series, is my use of M. Graham white gouache, in some cases mixed with my Maimeri Blu and Sennelier watercolors, to pull out some details and give some more materiality to the works, at least in the focal points. Materiality, roughness, and believability will guide my style through this series. Maybe I need to start thinking through a set of values like Calvino’s Six Memos.

Thanks for reading.





Some depth in the beekeeper’s woods


In preparation for further work on the trees I took a look again at some of John Singer Sargent’s paintings. It was encouraging to see how he used the trees well as background material. He wasn’t about about definition, just about framing and conveying enough depth without distracting from the subject, which was the light on the statues in the Boboli Gardens paintings. I tried to take that approach here, roughing in some branches and leaves and shades of light on the leaves. I am going to leave it alone for now and see if more needs to be done later, remembering that my focal point will be the light on the beekeeping suit.

Thanks for reading.

Experimenting on Yupo Paper with a new palette, new paints, and a new style.

Maybe it’s better to experiment with one variable at a time. Today I chose four.

For my birthday I received a new palette, which prompted me to rethink the pigments I’ve been using. I have been using Maimeri Blu paints, which I really like except for the raw and burnt sienna. I like burnt umber because it looks great when charged with ultramarine blue, but the other earth pigments I think I can do without. I want to move away from those for a while. I was also without a real bright opaque red. With the fall coming, I thought I might like one. I got the free sample Sennelier paints in the mail recently and like the Sennelier Yellow Light a lot, and the cinereous blue is a great sketching sky blue, so I thought I’d give them a try. For my new ones, I got yellow lake (nickel azo yellow), cadmium red light, and permanent alizarin crimson deep (really quinacridone pyrrolidine red that looks a lot like alizarin crimson and works great). So far so good. These fill in the gaps very nicely, and the consistency is great. I like to squeeze a little in the palette and let it dry, so having the honey-based paint is nice.

I am trying a smaller standard selection of paints for now that seem to give me a good range. They’re laid out from top left and around with gaps for special colors when the painting requires:

Sennelier Yellow Light
Sennelier Yellow Lake
Maimeri Blu Permanent Yellow Deep
Sennelier Cadmium Red Light
Maimeri Blu Primary Red Magenta
Sennelier Permanent Alizarin Crimson Deep
Maimeri Blu Ultramarine Blue
Daniel Smith Cobalt Blue
Maimeri Blu Prussian Blue
Maimeri Blu Cupric Green Deep (Pthalo Green)
Maimeri Blu Burnt Umber
Maimeri Blu Ivory Black


I really want to try to work quicker and looser, and I have been looking a lot at my catalog from the John Singer Sargent exhibit. I thought I’d try to be a paint more like him on my next one, which will have beekeeping as the subject. To warm up for that I messed around on a free sheet of Yupo paper that came in a magazine. It’s similar to painting in a Moleskine sketchbook. The paint beads up and stays on the surface. It also wipes easily, so layering is difficult. Worth a try, but very strange. The end result feels like a bit like a scratch-and-sniff. Here’s what I came up with today based on a photo I took of my uncle checking on the hive.


Getting Back Into the Old San Juan Painting

Seeing John Singer Sargent’s watercolors in person gave me a strong motivation with both my watercolor and my sketching. He has such confidence in every stroke, and I am a long way from that. I think sketching more frequently will help me. I hope to see that in my full paintings over time.

Maybe because it’s raining here, the kids are still asleep, so I’ve put in some time on the buildings on the left side to get them more or less finished off, except for some detailing and maybe scraping at the end. One of the lessons I took from John Singer Sargent was how much can be handled roughly on buildings and still have a convincing, lively result. This gave more some confidence to handle the middle building on the left, which had been holding me up.

Here it is now. Thanks for reading.


Outer Banks Modern Day Five: Completed for Now

Some things can only be seen in the shadows.
– Carlos Ruiz Zafon from The Shadow of the Wind

I started reading The Shadow of the Wind a few days ago, and this quote jumped out at me. The timing was perfect because I had just laid down the shadow across the front of the yellow house (shown in my last post and mixed with ultramarine, primary yellow, and burnt umber) and I was intrigued by the interesting look achieved because of the granulating ultramarine pigment. This is more than just a shadow. There’s some luminescence to it, and its presence gave the house an identity.

With this painting I have become very interested in the colors of shadows. I have been noticing how blue John Singer Sargent’s shadows often are, and how compelling they can be as a result. I wanted to borrow from that with the color of the white trim on the house, which, because of the strange cloudy and blue sky should reflect some interesting colors, and even on the fence. While the spaces are small, I tried to work in a few splashes of light cobalt, cerulean, and even a little viridian as another nod to Singer Sargent, as it was a favorite color of his. I also used it in the little power box at the base of the pole. Certainly not as compelling as his shadows (mine are actually quite bland in comparison), but what I did seems to fit, at least at this hour.

I think I am about done with this one, so I am showing it in a mat. I will hold on it for a few days to see what else, if anything, needs to be done and get a better photo with my Nikon and repost later, but for now here’s one last iPhone shot.

Thanks for reading.