Mendocino Cove Plein-Air Study 2018
11” x 14” Oil on panel
I love to paint energy, or more importantly consciousness—flowing through, animating, and emanating from form. That is the challenge for me and it is the reason I am irresistibly drawn to painting. And it is that which not only gives meaning to my art but my life as well.
THE TWO EVENTS THAT FORMED MY APPROACH TO PAINTING
Both of these events occurred while I was out painting in nature in the early 1980s.
(also briefly discussed on the first page of the “Dimension Section.”
As I was painting a thought crossed my mind that said simply, “Imagine nothingness.” I immediately put my brush down and cleared my mind. I began to sense a deep stillness. The stillness grew, becoming more peaceful, more empty, more all-encompassing. The deepest core of my sense of self rested in that nurturing void. Then, when I opened my eyes, I was startled to be looking at a world of vibration and life, bathed in a brilliant light—a world filled with an intensity of energy I had never experienced before—all arising from this contrast with nothingness. This sense of nothingness became like a backdrop for the landscape and I was able to hold awareness of both realities simultaneously as I continued to paint.
But what was most extraordinary about this experience is that it did not leave, though fading now and then to varying degrees. And over the coming weeks, the sense of a void or nothingness developed into a clear experience of two distinct dimensions—the more limited time/space physical dimension of physical forms held and permeated by the changeless dimension of this living void. I began to paint studies out in nature to see how paint could capture and communicate this most curious dance of these two realities, wondering if it could even be done. I started to do dark backgrounds representing the void and I portrayed the landscape “floating” within that field, the way it actually felt. (I also point to the simultaneous existence of these two dimensions in my book, “Tobe and the River Is” where the village Soñadora sits on the edge of the world before the “Great Nothing.”)
This perception that I was having of the world in a dimension also triggered, as I also stated in the “Objects in a Dimension Section,” a memory of when I was a child and I would set toy figures and objects in a cardboard box. My toy world had distinct boundaries and its own unique sense of space and time, beyond which existed a completely different reality (the whole bedroom and myself)—mirroring this “dimension experience” in a curious way, except now the box was large and held the whole scene and instead of toys, the “box” was filled with mountains, clouds, trees, streams, and animals. And now my physical existence, too, was in the “box”—a box with apparent real boundaries or limitations, though imperceptible—a dimension too with its sense of time and space and with another reality beyond that I could feel.
“How can I express this?” I wondered. And then, following a strong impulse, I found myself loading the brush with paint and boldly brushing on these lines at the top of my painting, representing the partially visible opened top of the box, where, as a child, I would look down into the toy dimension below, except now, instead of a little boy, it is my more expanded awareness or Self looking down into the “box” of this time/space dimension where my physical form stands painting. When I returned to the studio I started working on a larger painting titled, “Death Valley” below based on my painting studies from my recent trip there.
Death Valley - Dimension
33” x 45” Mixed media on canvas 1984
In this first studio painting the lines representing both the top and the bottom of the time/space dimension“box” are only partially visible and are painted in a warm color. In subsequent paintings, they are done in white.
Diagram of Dimension Lines for Death Valley
How the lines of the time/space dimension "box" would appear if they were extended beyond the painting.
This may seem conceptual and like some kind of an intellectual process but to the contrary, it is direct and very experiential and the method rises naturally out of the necessity of trying to express the truth of the experience in the most direct way possible.
I began “Death Valley” by first representing the feeling of a void by painting the canvas all black. Then I added the lines at the top and bottom representing the top and the bottom of the box of this time/space dimension of form that we are in. Next I began portraying the landscape, leaving the void visible on the edges of the painting.
In subsequent paintings, as in the example below, I eliminated the bottom of the time/space box, painting only the top opening. Also, as the nothingness/void became more alive and energetic to me, I started adding lines, light, and washes of color to the void.
San Ildefonso Pueblo VI - Dimension
In this painting you can see the void clearly visible at the edges as the backdrop for the landscape.
The lines of the top of the dimension box extended beyond the painting.
I had been working on this outdoor landscape for a couple of hours depicting it realistically in detail. When the painting was done I was surprised and a bit dismayed when I held it up and it felt like my awareness ran into a “solid wall”—a solid wall of paint on canvas. Yet, the feeling was so different when I looked at the living landscape beyond. The forms there were more “porous” to my awareness—as if I could actually enter into them and feel their life. And the life in them extended out, penetrating me. I felt vital relationships with all the living forms in dynamic communication. And all this was only but hinted at in my painting in only the faintest way—like a voice muffled under many blankets.
I studied the scene and then the delightful, challenging question came, “How do I capture nature alive like this in paint?” Yet, to transcend the paint, the canvas; to depict life itself—this became my call. And thus my deeper exploration into landscape painting began. My first approach was to create an abstract energy background, tape areas off, and realistically paint the scene in certain areas creating a dance with the energetic background making the landscape feel less solid and more penetrable. In later pieces I would also paint dark and white rectangles across the landscape—creating “doors and windows” where the awareness of the viewer is invited to sink in, breaking up the sensation of impenetrable solid forms. Later, I would also add energy lines and other effects of light to break up the sense of solid surfaces further.
Chico Buttes I
30” x 40” Oil on canvas 1984
This painting was my first experiment to create a
more energetic landscape.
Mountain Vineyard - Harvest
37” x 56” Oil on canvas 1992
An example of white and black rectangles creating "doors and windows" to let the landscape breathe.
THE PROCESS of MY PLEIN AIR PAINTINGS
Before I go into explaining my technique, I would first like to mention that I am finding that the less I refer to photographs, whether of horses grazing, seagulls flying, or waves crashing and rely on my direct observation and sketches, my art becomes much more expressive. And though it takes a lot more time to go out on location over and over again, it is well worth the time and effort. I was also thrilled to discover that this effort heightens my awareness, enlivening my sense of being alive as my senses are often strained to their limits to try to fathom what I am looking at as things shift and move about, sometimes very quickly.
Though the development of my landscapes can vary, they do tend to follow a general pattern which allows for a more accurate portrayal of the life of the landscape I feel. For those of you who have read the previous sections of this website, my process will be familiar. When I go out painting on location, whether a landscape or an interior scene, I first scan the scene for the forms that have the strongest, most dynamic energy (often sacrificing a more ideal traditional composition of the scene). Once I decide on a powerful subject, I next look past forms altogether and focus on how the overall place feels—the mood of the place. Then, once that is felt, I invite my awareness to sink to an even subtler level as I begin to sense a changeless life holding and permeating everything—what I call the Unified Field. This Unified Field can also be seen as including a Will, Intelligence, or Mind. And the world is seen as a projection of this Mind—all forms holograms—energetic with only the illusion of solidity. And love flows through it all. I explain this in more detail in the sections “Objects in a Dimension” and “Objects in a Unified Field” as well as in my illustrated book, “Tobe and the River Is.”
Once I feel this energy of the scene, I do an abstract painting of it. After this step is done, I decide if I am going to continue to paint over the abstract on location or keep the abstract intact to bring into my studio to be developed as its own layer in the larger painting.
The next step then, either on a new panel or over the abstract, is to paint the surface detail of forms of the landscape. But first I begin by feeling how the forms exist in a monumental way. To capture the sensations of this monumentality of the forms I distort the actual size and direction of the planes of forms, whether a mountain, a rock, or a building. (See my section on “The Force of Objects”). This stage is usually done as an outline with some hint of value. The following stage in the painting process is to portray the distinct emanations of the forms through line and color. And finally, over these layers, after taping off areas I want to have the abstract clearly show through, I begin to paint, here and there, the final surface detail of the forms—the way the forms appear to the eye, in some places covering over the earlier layers altogether. I also fade off the surface detail in other areas, allowing the previous energetic layers to shine through to predominance. Thus, the painting expresses these various levels of perception into one integrated whole, and my full experience of the scene is passed on to the viewer of the painting—sometimes, surprisingly, in very literal ways.
If I am doing the whole painting on location, once the “realistic” surface version is completed, I may break up the solid nature of the landscape further with bold strokes and lines.
THE PROCESS of MY LARGE-SCALE PAINTINGS
I am most happy and fulfilled as an artist when I have the tactile experience of thick paint on a brush or trowel, boldly striking across the canvas, where I am taking real chances on the fly. This is where the art process comes alive for me, where the adrenalin flows through the veins! And though I can draw or paint most things with pretty good skill and had done so for decades, when I finally realized the creative potential of the computer, about fifteen years ago, I dove in and began to explore it. I have come to know it as a wonderful tool, as you will see as you read on—yet a tool, for me, to be used as sparingly as possible for nothing can compare with the energy of a stroke from a brush held by hands alive animated by the heart and will of the artist.
For my large-scale paintings, I first do a painting using traditional methods of brush and paint, sometimes oil, gauche or acrylic, on canvas or panel. At this stage in the development of the painting, this original source can be as small as 9” x 12” or as large as 4’ x 10’. For the larger paintings, I use trowels, large brushes, and sometimes spray guns.
Unlike doing a plein air painting all at once, where all the elements are combined, I do a few individual paintings on location: the abstract painting of the Unified Field, a painting of the “force” of the forms in the landscape, distorting form, as I mentioned above, then a painting of the emanations of the forms, and often a variety of other paintings of surface details, as needed.
Now, this brings us to my use of the computer. First, let me say that I have found that the less I use the computer the happier I am as an artist and the more pleased I am with the finished painting. That being said, let me also say that for me the computer is an invaluable tool as you will see as you read on, especially when used judiciously. So the next step is to bring these paintings into the computer, with the abstract painting being the bottom layer. I then mask the more realistic paintings, revealing the abstract underneath to varying degrees here and there. These transparent effects I achieved in the past before the computer with tape and sandpaper, often sanding too far and needing to re-paint parts; a very time-consuming, painstaking, and imperfect process, but doing the masking on the computer instead simplifies this process and makes it possible for me to more precisely actualize my vision and create the energies I am after.
I make other minor adjustments to the painting on the computer, but I also intentionally leave out most of the elements so I can do them by hand later once the final image is printed out on canvas. I have found nothing takes the place of hands-on painting to create a dynamic energy in the painting.
Most importantly, the computer allows me to print out the painting on canvas to the precise size I feel it needs to be, creating the desired effects on the viewer. Size is a powerful expressive element—actually, I have found, one of the most powerful. I cannot know the final size a painting needs to be until this phase of the painting process is reached, where I can clearly see and experience all the facets of the painting. Then I know what size best captures and harmonizes with the essence of the energy of the image. To be able to orchestrate size with such control is one of the things I appreciate so much about this age we live in. So many times in the early decades of my painting career I would be left with regret, as I looked at a finished painting and realized it would have been a stronger piece if it were only a different size. But now it is very rare that I have that feeling anymore.
Printing out the image causes it to lose most of its energy created during the original hands-on process of the painting. The exciting challenge then is to bring the image back to life. One thing that helps is to paint, using the same integrity and care that I gave the original painting, the elements that I intentionally left out for exactly this purpose. And eventually with great care I paint over the entire surface again. This is a time-consuming process, but one well worth it. This stage too is creative—adjusting hues, values, expressions, gestures, etc., giving even more control.
This is my process. Though it is an expensive and takes a lot of time with all the different steps, to me, being a bit of a perfectionist, it is well worth it when I look at the finished painting and see it accurately capturing and expressing the subtlety and power of my vision very clearly!
MY PERSPECTIVE ON BEING AN ARTIST
Principally, my relationship to art has been as a vehicle for exploration and a catalyst for self-discovery. There is a unity of purpose to my art: to take art to its furthest limits; to see what art can and cannot do; to see if paint and brush can express the most transcendental states of matter, perception, and being. Many times I have been amazed at the level of communication art was able to achieve. I am also so grateful to have seen my art become a catalyst in opening up others to their own deep experiences. It is this ability of art to touch people in deep and mysterious ways that I marvel at and value so much.
Regarding my artistic journey, it has been a serendipitous adventure, not for the faint of heart. It has been filled with unexpected turns, some frustrating setbacks, as well as incredible advances. Now, from where I stand looking back, I see an overall intelligent pattern and design to it all. Even what I thought were detours and dead ends were necessary to bring about needed change and insight. And the rewards of my art career have far outweighed any of the many challenges and difficulties I have had to face over the decades.
IN PARTING – Some Last Words
I would just like to mention, that though art has enriched my life in so many ways, I have also found being an artist and doing art at moments can be much overrated, whereas just being can never be. Some of the most fulfilling times in my life indeed were when I was forced away from doing my art. Life is rich and it’s not so much what we do that makes it so, but what we are.
And to you young artists I would like to say, be open to what life sends you, especially if you are a struggling artist. Do what is required. I have found if my expression is cut off because of the demands of living in this world, it naturally flows out in other expressions. And the artist's eye continues to grow, no matter what we are doing, if we are open and present as we move deeper into the heart. Also, don't be in a hurry to limit your art by dressing it up for the marketplace, but learn to demand much more of it, and it will become your ally and source of strength throughout your life.
I hope that my art will, in some way, inspire you to explore the expression of the most profound levels of your being, letting your expression, whatever form it takes, clarify and strengthen your understanding.
May you appreciate the wonder of your incredible journey and thank you for letting me be a part of it.
Two Islands – Mendocino 2018
63” x 77” Mixed media on canvas