Style?? I don't have any of that!

3-24a 003a.jpg

One of the most frustrating things beginning painters face is, ‘what is my style?’  I don’t have any style!  How do I get a style?  I’m pretty sure I should have a style!

I have a rather uncomfortable memory reading something by a successful, rather local artist, who had a show early in her career.  A critic said of her work that it lacked consistency.  She said the critique was a very important step in her development as a painter.  I read this with painful awareness that I had no consistency whatsoever.  Did I want consistency?  Well, and then, more to the point, what was consistency in an artist?  This bothered me enough that I asked around and not one, single soul could offer up anything remotely satisfactory.  I would like to think this bothers everyone, but maybe not.  

But perversity wins out here.  I have been thinking about this uncomfortably for several months, and honestly, I have no success whatsoever.  I don’t want my paintings to devolve into formula paintings … think Robert Kincaid (oh God, don’t think of him!  Dreadful artist!).  

I am nowhere near managing to develop a successful formula, considering the one consistency I do have – I rub out a lot of starts.  A LOT!  I’m still on the Learner’s Permit.

I gather I do have some sort of style because people tell me they can recognize my paintings.  But I tend to paint a little of everything.  I’m still doing still lifes, flowers, fruits, the occasional portrait of a person or even a dog.  I seem to drift toward landscapes more than anything else, because I am getting more comfortable there than some of the other subject matter’    Most likely, that is because it does not have to be accurate.  I just can’t draw that well. 

So I’ll probably continue to get a hankering to paint a lily or a sloppy, wet peach.  It requires a different skill set.  So consistency in subject matter is off the table. 

I mostly paint with a brush – several brushes in fact.  But then I will want a change up and haul out a palette knife.  I’ve never had any training at all, and it gives a wholly different feel – and certainly not consistent with most of my work.    

So I guess I shall just plod on with my Lerner’s Permit in painting until I can figure out what style is and what consistency means, and hope for the best.  It’s all a crap shoot anyway.

Verisimilitude and Other Bad Habits

4-16p 007.jpg

I began my career in the visual arts in art school in Atlanta earning a degree in Interior Design.  I turned out to be very good at understanding the basics in construction drawings.   I understood the concepts of plans, elevations, and I could detail very, very well.  I simply understood in my head how things go together.  And I had the ability apparently of how to communicate that in drawings for the builders – construction documents, if you will.  I began with pencil on vellum, moved up to ink on mylar, and finally had to learn AutoCAD.  I was resistant to CAD because of the machine aspect.  I was very proud of my drawings – they really were beautiful.  And I think a well-done sheet of drawings is truly a beautiful thing.  

But moving from there right into painting was a bit of a stretch.  As close as I could come to painting was a few paltry renderings in design classes.  It is all perspective and almost always using hard edges and straight lines.  It is just a whole different approach. 

And I was programmed to accuracy.  It had to look like what it was.  Adventurous and creative renderings were not exactly ideal in the rendering field.  A play of shadows and maybe some prettily rendered flowers, those were okay.  But venturing to far beyond verisimilitude was not acceptable. 

So this was where I was when I begun to paint.  Think about it.  I really have to work it in my head to be able to give myself permission to move a tree and add a shadow that isn’t necessarily there. 

The Heart-Break of Painting

9-21 025.jpg

Well it can break your heart because from the moment you glare down a photo, you have vested a lot of energy into the painting.  Yesterday, I rubbed out a painting that I had worked on for 3 days.  It was a specific painting for a friend and I wanted it to go well for her sake.  But it didn’t go at all and I had little choice but to just make it go away.  

And rubbing out a painting takes a special ruthlessness, in the spirit of killing part of yourself.  This is your heart and soul that is just getting smeared over into a mush.  And it never goes completely away; there is always a guilty shadow of the failure that never got born.   

It still hurts, but I am not quite the drama queen that I was when I first took up painting.  Then I would cry – a lot!  Essentially I cried for the first 3 years.  Well, I cried, slashed canvas, berated myself for every little failure with, and bored people to oblivion with my tantrums.  And I would be upset for days.   Now I only get depressed, and still bore people with very small, delicate tantrums.  But I still have failures and they are still somewhat crushing.  But I am getting better – I know better how I work, and I am learning to accept it.  Well, sorta better!

Anne Lamott


Anne Lamott is a lovely writer, funny and astute.  Her book about writing espouses the virtues of getting off your duff and just putting words onto a piece of paper.  According to her, it does not really matter how dreadful it is, the important thing is to get that s****y first draft pushed out.  Then you work on cleaning it up.  I don’t know if she intended those self-same instructions to be applied to painting, but that is very close to how I begin a painting.  I panic.  There is no reason for it, it is just there.  There is so much promise in a blank canvas - and so very many ways to screw it up.  

I can find a perfectly nice photo and then I sort of begin to make the decisions about how big, how to fit it on the page, whether or not I can really draw that whatever-it-is.  Rule #1 – a good photo almost never equals a good painting.  Photos are photos and paintings are paintings.  

I begin by staring at the photo – trying to analyze and or/visualize the values, composition, color, the usual stuff.   In other words, I usually begin a painting with dithering and equivocating.  Eventually, I bite and just dive in.  

Other artists plan things.  They work out a whole palette before they begin anything.  They sketch, they do value studies; they have all kinds of tricks to avoid screw up.  I’ve seen sketches that I thought were much nicer than the finished product.  I’m safe there; I can’t plan a dang thing.  The finished product is the only product.

I try to begin with a sketch or sorts, directly on the canvas.  I am usually way off, because I am not a particularly good delineator.  Then I put in blocks of a swath a color here and there.  At that point, I begin to rub out here and there in equally large swaths.  Then it is back and forth; already I am leaving the photo.  Eventually the rag has most of the colors on it and I will just use the dirty rag to lay in large areas that way.  It is surprisingly efficient, very like finger painting.  And sometimes I never get it beyond this stage.  


Painting and the beginnings of the written word – my written word:


This is my first effort in writing a blog in several years.  I began a blog when I started painting just to try to track some of my painting efforts.  I had a terrible time with the other blog site and could not manage to make it ‘go’ for more than a few rounds.  It was disheartening to have to deal with a whole different set of rules every time I wanted to access it.  So I just let it drift away.

Truth is, I like to write.  I like the words and feel I am rather agile with the English language.  My mother despaired for my spelling and grammar, but my skills are better than current TV reporters, so I am not very worried.  They get away with murder – and split infinitives.  I’ll bet you that Charlie Gibson was the last one on TV that knew what split infinitive was.  

The point here, with this blog, is to try to marry the verbal and the visual - 2 truly disparate disciplines.  I taught design and drawing for several years off and on, and that was one of the best bits.  If someone asks a question about something that is strictly visual, it is truly challenging.  Example: what makes the Albers Portfolio so hot?  Why is so great about an Edward Weston photo?  It’s just a pepper!  

I will make no attempt to answer these questions here, but it is a wonderful exercise to try to work parse through.  Of course, I practically become an alcoholic for the duration of my teaching years.  Those are hard questions!


How I Started

The painting shown is one of my very first paintings when I was just beginning to learn.  


This seems to be the story that everyone wants. They all ask, “How long have you been painting?”  Ok – not so long!  As a free-lance contract employee to an Interior Design firm in Marietta, Georgia, I did construction documents – by the mile, actually.  I was very good, and very fast, and I could do them in my sleep for the most part.  If they wanted it, I could do the documents to build it.  

Then along came the economy bust in 2009, and suddenly it was time for me to retire, it was a luxury profession after all.  I’d pretty much lost everything 20 years earlier and it scared me badly, so I did not look up; I just worked.  Ergo, I have to say that the tanking of the economy truly did me a favor.  I was well past retirement, and tired of it all.  I’m not good enough with numbers to know whether I was going to be able to survive retirement or not, but I’d done the best I could, so it had to be enough, in the understanding that you live on what you have.

And, miracle! I was fine.  I could not live lavishly, but I have all I need.  

I’d known for years I’d wanted to paint when I could actually manage it, so after a few months of cleaning house, I signed up for an oil painting class at Blue Ridge Community College with the lovely and patient, Laura Miller.  I had thought I wanted water color.  Oh well ….

Along with several other beginners, we began with, “This is a brush ….”  She was the perfect teacher for me.  I was essentially shifting the whole axis of my life.  She gave all the instructions about the medium and techniques, and then pretty much left us to decide what we wanted from her.  She was never unkind and always supportive - just what I needed through those rather emotional early years of painting.  Hats off to her sensitivity; I could not have managed without her.