art technique

"How do you Decide What to Paint?"


The other day, I had a really nice couple visit my Asheville art studio from northern Ohio. They spent a good deal of time looking at all my work and were obviously connecting with it. That “connection” makes me feel a sense of accomplishment because this is obviously my goal. After a good while perusing my paintings, they came up to my workstation in the front of my studio and asked, “How do you decide what to paint? I feel like I can just walk into each piece. How do you do that?" Oh gosh, I love questions like that. Usually the questions are nit-picky technical questions inquiring about the precise steps involved in my process (I don’t share those by the way) and addressing those questions all day long can be tiring. But THIS question made me smile. This gets to the heart of the matter. A cool technique might be interesting, but unless a painting “draws you in”, that painting will not sell. And as a professional full-time artist, I sorta need my work to sell and so this issue is something in the forefront of my mind as I’m considering what to paint next.

A cool technique might be interesting, but unless a painting “draws you in”, that painting will not sell.

When I have no idea what to paint next, I browse through all my old photos from various hikes and vacations we’ve taken over the years. The thing is, I some really awesome photos in my files that, while they are really nice photos, would make really boring paintings. One of the key things I look for is whether or not I’m “drawn in” to the composition. If you look through my landscape portfolio on this website, you’ll notice I often employ a pathway of some sort, whether it’s a road or footpath or something in between. I do that because that is such a simple way to invite the viewer into a painting: “Come down this pathway and see what’s around the corner!"

If I want to really accentuate the invitation, I’ll throw in a few sun rays. Sun rays are magical. In a dark, silent forest on a long-forgotten footpath, rays of sunlight up ahead beckon you on.

The other issue is that honestly, every painting I dream up is depicting a place I would personaly like to just go and sit (probably by myself) and listen to the sounds of the place. Maybe for all day. That’s what I’m into. I love being in nature and sensing that call to quiet. I really need more of that. And from what I’ve seen in my art studio, that “call to quiet” resonates with a lot of people who visit me and view my artwork.

So, combine a path and a few sun rays into a quiet space like that, and then you have it: a painting you want to walk into. It sounds really easy, right? It’s not! What I’ve explained in a couple of paragraphs here takes hours and days sometimes. But when I find what I’m looking for, I always save that idea and eventually, that idea gives birth to a painting that (if done right) will carry someone to a quiet place in a very busy world. I like to feel like that’s important.

Making the Most of Mistakes

Step One: Texture Application

Step One: Texture Application

As a full-time artist residing in Asheville, North Carolina with an open art studio in the River Arts District, I am pretty much used to hearing every question about my artwork that I can imagine. That said, one question from a young artist just the other day caught me by surprise: “Do you ever make a mistake with your artwork, and if so, how do you not just get completely discouraged?”

Oh my gosh, my whole technique and process was built on top of mistake after mistake. Even the subject matters I paint are informed by past mistakes. Yes, if you’re a creative person, mistakes can be unnerving. That’s because we want to be perfect. I want something beautiful and brilliant to just flow out of me naturally, with little effort. I also want to fly, but neither scenario is possible. If you are a person who has given yourself to honing your create craft, then you know the little irritating secret: mistakes are our friends. The whole notion that “there are no mistakes with art” is utter nonsense. Progress is built because of mistakes, not in spite of them. (And yes, you may quote me.)

Just yesterday, one such mistake happened with a new idea I’ve been working on. I have upcoming “sail” artwork in the making. I say “upcoming” because I’m still in the experimental stages of developing it. I say “sail” because they will bow out from the wall rather than lay flat against the wall. Why would I do this? Oh, just because I think it could be really cool! But a couple months ago, I applied a flexible medium for texture to my 1/8” flexible panel and yesterday, I unwrapped a set of them (after about six weeks of being wrapped in brown paper to protect it) and realized that the flexible texture is not sticking to the panel. I stared at it with angst (naturally) and immediately went into the problem-solving mode. Either texture material is wrong, or the panel itself is the wrong material. So tomorrow, I will begin another prototype and trash the first one.

…keeping a playful heart when dealing with adversity is the key to ultimate success…

Do I feel frustrated? Depressed? Like a failure? NO! This is exciting. Seriously, I love this because eventually, I’ll figure it out. It’s really not rocket science, it just requires experimenting and playing. And play is fun.

So the moral of this story (which probably applies to everyone (artists and non-artists alike) is this: Getting something right the first time does not matter like you think it does. I think that keeping a playful heart when dealing with adversity is the key to ultimate success with whatever we’re trying to accomplish. And who knows, with enough creativity and playful experimenting, we really WILL fly.

The Power of Mystery

I love watching people. Call it voyeuristic but it can be quite entertaining sometimes. I have an "open art studio" in Asheville, which as I've explained in the past, means that anyone can walk in at any time and take a look at my paintings on the wall and watch me work (if they want to). When people enter my studio, my area is just to the left of the door, so I'm right there, and that's my favorite time to pay attention. Oftentimes, the expression on peoples faces is one of complete bafflement. Just last week, a woman strolled in, took a couple second look at the first painting on the wall, screwed up her face and said, "Okay, so what is this? How do you do it?" That made me laugh inside (I love that my artwork baffles people!).

When I began painting and first opened my studio in Asheville, I used to answer these questions in great detail, which, when I think about it now, was really weird I felt compelled to do that. It would be like if you went to a French restaurant and asked the waiter how the chef cooked the Chicken Basquaise and the chef came out, sat down at your table, pulled out the recipe card and went over it all step by step. That was me.

I don't do that anymore simply because I realized that when you de-mystify something, you take power away from it. I don't want to do that. I love what I do -- I put so much of myself into my paintings -- I don't want to take away their power to grab people. I WANT my artwork to baffle people and give them enjoyment. I really want to illicit wonder. So...I WANT people to wonder what the heck they're looking at and I want them to guess how I do the kind of artwork I do, but I walk a fine line. See, I want to be polite and answer their questions and encourage even more questions. But I have to try to figure out how much to answer and what not to say, knowing that the more detailed an explanation I give, the more I deflate the power of the art I'm explaining.

I want my artwork to be truly unique. I've spent almost eighteen years developing something that no one else is doing, and while that's really satisfying, it also is frustrating because I WANT to talk about it. I think what I do is fascinating (most of the time). I have a blast and I think it's probably normal for someone to blab endlessly about what they're excited about. But in my case, I have to know how little is acceptable to say, and then say no more. Mystery gives power, and I would think all artists would want their work to be powerful.

Half Baked Ideas...

I usually don't show anyone what a half-completed painting looks like, but then I thought it might actually be interesting for friends to see. Every painting I do goes through what I call "the ugly stage" and these pieces, each approximately 50% complete, have JUST come out the other side of that ugly stage. Admittedly, they ain't beauties yet but they're not as hideous looking as they were a few days ago (trust me on that). When these pieces are complete, I'll post side-by-side photos (in process / finished) if people are interested. 

Thoughts on a Mighty Failure

StClaire Art process.jpg

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein


For the last several months, I've been trying to figure out what to do with a material I love: Dichroic film. It's a vinyl film with an adhesive back and it's usually used on panels of clear plexiglas for interesting effects. I had a few pieces of clear plex and some of the film, so I applied the film to one side of the plex and experimented with applying paint to it, resin to it, ink to it...just to see what happened. 

"What were you thinking you'd do with it?" you ask. Well, I was asking that same question. I had no idea what I wanted to do with it, I just really wanted to play with it. Then I came up with an legit experiment...which would not be cheap (dichroic film is seriously expensive) but I got the okay from Joy so...I ordered a couple yards of the material. What I ended up doing was creating two paintings the panels of which were built angled toward each other (not parallel to the wall) and I created my painting on that angled surface. I built it up with texture, covered the texture with Italian aluminum leaf, oil paint and resin. Then...I covered the surface with the dichroic film. Then I was outside with the pieces and it started to rain. When I got back into my studio, there were big rain drops all over the surface of my cool paintings. I thought they were ruined except now...who'd have guessed? The rain drops amplified the coloration of the dichroic film, creating little circular puddles of rainbow light everywhere they rested on the surface. So that effect was too cool to pass up playing with so...I dried off the surface of the panels and dropped bits of resin all over the surface of each panel. When the resin cured, I had permanent "rain drops" on the surface of my paintings. The effect was cool. 

And then I posted photos on Facebook and waited for some opinions. Putting together the honest input of friends, I realized I was working with a material that was indeed cool and worth experimenting with, but that the way I was using it was entirely overkill. It's like someone getting all excited about inventing vanilla extract and then trying to convince you that it was amazing and you really need to take a big gulp of it. That would end in disaster, as did my art experiment. Vanilla extract (like dichroic film) is very, very potent. You only need a small bit to make a huge impact. 

So it's back to the drawing board. I'm going to do something with this stuff. And I've got some ideas! 

Winston Churchill once said, "“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Thank you Winston. I am undaunted. 

A Funny Thing Happened at the Studio Today...

So, imagine blissfully painting by your window (so you're in your "zone") and a nicely dressed woman (the mayor) enters your studio followed by professional looking gentlemen from HBO carrying TV cameras and a huge boom mic and she starts asking you questions about your unusual painting technique and what it's like to be an artist in Asheville. Yeah, so that was my afternoon!

What is 'good' art?

There are different answers to that question, which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is that even asking the question scandalizes some people. I’ve heard folks say things like, “there’s no such thing as good art or bad art. Art comes from inside the soul. How can you judge that?” So before I even begin to take a stab at answering the question “what is good art?” Let me first defend the right to ask the question in the first place.

You Can Judge Art??

To begin with, let me say that yes, it’s completely improper to criticize the self-expressive art of a six-year-old. A six-year-old cannot produce good or bad art. To a parent, it’s all beautiful. It can’t be judged. The same could be said for someone who enjoys dabbling in watercolor or oil paint for fun or self-expression. Painting, sculpting, practicing the piano… is all fun and personally, I would encourage anyone to explore their creativity—society would be healthier for it. But not all art is like that. The art of a college student earning his painting degree should be judged and analyzed. The work of a professional artist is judged all the time, and rightly so, because he has submitted it to the public eye, not simply as self-expression, but as true art—as expression of something transcendent. If you handed me a page from your diary, it would be completely inane for me to redline a spelling error. On the other hand, if I were a creative writing instructor and you were my student, it would be kosher for me to mark up your essay. Indeed, I would be a poor teacher if I did not, even if it were a good essay. So whether we can judge art is entirely dependent on our context. In the right context, we are free to make certain judgments. In fact, we judge all the time, and that’s not inherently problematic. Does everyone sing equally well? Are all poets equally skilled? If you have a favorite restaurant or a favorite beer or favorite movie or a favorite band or a favorite anything, you’re judging—you’re praising something as superior to something else, or to everything else. We judge, and that’s simply the truth. Some things are better than other things, and it is inconsistent, even dishonest, to pretend otherwise. So can we judge art? We do, whether we think we can or not. What we need most, then, is to critique and analyze our criteria. The criteria which we use to judge between good and poor art will be the subject of my next few posts.

A Trip to the Art Museum

Have you ever felt intimidation stepping into an art gallery? Have you been to a modern art museum and felt like a cultural moron, stuck wondering, “why is this oil painting even in here, and who decided this is art?” If your answer is ‘yes’ to either question, read on.

I’ve heard people say things like “with art, there are no mistakes. It’s all art” (and this assertion is ridiculous). You see, contrary to the opinion of those who esteem themselves as culturally elite postmoderns, art has rules. Don’t get me wrong…you can haphazardly throw paint on a canvas and it may be great therapy, but it’s not necessarily great art.

Think about it...

Consider, we don’t approach any other creative endeavor with the assumption that “there are no rules – there are no mistakes!” Can I record myself pounding on a piano and expect to go platinum? Can I string together 50 random words from Webster’s dictionary call that poetry? Can I close my eyes, dig through my refrigerator, pull out great gobs of mystery contents, whip up something special on the stove, and call that cooking? It may be special but not likely edible. And that’s because music has rules and poetry has rules and cooking has rules and if you break those rules you have a mess. It should be no surprise then that creating artwork is exactly the same way.

Rules can be our friends...

There are rules and it takes time and painstaking work to master these rules. But with mastery, they can form an incubator for truly great artwork. Let me be honest. I don’t think everything heralded as art is truly art. I think a great deal of confusion happens when we don’t make a distinction between “art” and “visual expression”. Visual expression does not have to conform to any rules at all. It can be shocking. It can be crude. It can be poorly executed. It doesn’t matter. Visual expression needs only to say something and make you think (e.g. graffiti spray painted on a wall to incite rebellion or express angst).  The confusion arises when visual expression winds up in art museums. Don’t let that intimidate or confuse you. It may be a powerful visual expression, and it may be valid. Please listen to it. Try to understand what it means. Maybe it is completely inane and nonsensical (but maybe that’s how its creator views their world, so it can still be insightful). But you don’t have to process someone’s visual expression like you would process true art. Visual expression seeks to communicate, but without reference to the rules of design and beauty. I believe true art recognizes the rules and design within the universe and works within the grain of these patterns to create something beautiful and emotive.

Art has rules and structure. Those rules and that structure provide a framework for for the creation of something truly amazing.

"Big Mamma" begins to sing....

Sealing of "Cullasaja Falls" 

Attention Please

My son Gerin and I hauled my painting "Cullasaja Falls" (affectionately known as "Big Mamma") across the street to do the final sanding and sealing (seen here). Now, the composition is complete and it's ready for the application of aluminum leaf. This painting is begging to be a major statement piece or entrance art (eventually) and it's been exciting seeing it beginning to "come to life" and I can't wait to begin the color application. More to come...

Beginnings II

Makoto Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura

 "In the Beginning"

“It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to."  Jean-Luc Godard  

In thinking about my development as a painter, it's a bit like looking at a large pot of stew simmering on the stove: I see chunks of potato, and (oh!) there's a carrot...but what's that red lump? Oh yes, I remember..." There are so many elements that have come together and are still coming together (I'm not dead yet!) to inform and shape what I do. That's what is challenging and really fun about creativity, and I hope I never, ever loose it...that childlike sense of curiosity and awe I feel at seeing something new.  And of those sources of inspiration, some of them really stand out and have radically shaped what you do. 

One of those sources for me is Makoto Fujimura. Fujimura’s work is represented by Artrue International and has been exhibited at galleries around the world, including Dillon Gallery in New York, Sato Museum in Tokyo, The Contemporary Museum of Tokyo, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts Museum, Bentley Gallery in Arizona, Gallery Exit and Oxford House at Taikoo Place in Hong Kong, and Vienna’s Belvedere Museum.  (He's a busy guy.)

His work is really mesmerizing to me. And like the Orthodox icons that got me started painting on metal, he paints on gold leaf using hand-ground pigments and centuries-old Japanese techniques. He paints with amazing color -- sometimes subtle, sometimes intense, but what's cool is that he's taken something ancient and made it new and this encouraged me to do the same (but I obviously went in a very different direction). What I love about his pieces is that though they are abstract and are beautiful in their execution, they mean something. He is so adept at combining deep, spiritual meaning into a piece, and it's fascinating to study his art and try to figure out the meaning (before I cheat and look at the title). His art doesn't just "take you somewhere else" but makes you think and feel. I really like that. 

When I began my own technique several years ago, I tried to take on that symbolism in my work, and believe me, it's not at all easy. My first series was a group of seven large art pieces based on the first week of Creation (each painting symbolizing what happened on that day per the account in the Book of Genesis). Encouraged by the results, I tackled Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, carefully listening over and over again to each of the four movements and trying to figure out how to illustrate a four part piece of music with a set of four paintings. Very challenging. All that was a wonderful experiment, but I eventually ended up returning to abstract and landscape art...but now with new "tools in my tool belt" so to speak.  

So the work I do now, though also painted on metallic leaf, is nothing like Mako's work and you'd probably never guess he has influenced me so greatly, but the idea that art can emotionally draw you in and make you deeply think -- that came from Mako Fujimura. So...thank you Mako!