29 October 2021

Innatism. Art is in our nature.

 Recently I've become (yet another) groupie of  Steven Pinker and his work. He is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. While reading his book  "The Blank Slate", a defense of innate traits in the human mind, I started to think his ideas might apply to our notion of art and sure enough, Chapter 20 was devoted to just that. I found this chapter fascinating even if it wasn't exhaustive. In a nutshell, the human race has carried art in our bones since we developed human bones and advances in neurology, genetics and psychology indicate we have an innate need -and talent- for art.

Glen Namundja at work.

To paraphrase Robert Storey, art has three voices, those of the author, the audience, and the species. 

Pinker starts his chapter by pointing out that critics, scholars  and people who make al living in the arts lament the loss of an interest in high culture. They point out that the National Endowment for the Arts has seen its budgets slashed and that Universities are dropping Humanities courses at a quick pace. Museums rely on blockbuster shows to survive and orchestras have to fall on classics or popular music fro their funding. 

 These complaints are anything but new.

And yet, there has never been more art available or  produced, ever, EVER.

Nawarla Gabarnmang, Australia. Paintings that predate Stonhenge.  


Pinker does admit a decline in three areas that descend from prestigious European genres: 1)  music performed by symphonic orchestras, art shown in major galleries and museums, and the ballet performed by major companies.  Quick, name a classical music composer born after 1940. They are all probably in the film business.  2) Art criticism and its loss of influence. 3) Arts Academia, a favorite subject in satirical novels - a veritable  genre - ,  comedies and even zany movies

Steven Pinker gives a totally plausible explanation for this decline. Nothing to do with 'eurocentrism' or a lack of education in the audiences or  a decline in the cultural prowess of the West or any of the other bored and tired explanations from the right and left. More about this later.

While  working on a particularly repetitive stretch of shots for a children's television series  I was able to listen to "Homage to Catalonia" from George Orwell on Youtube and a commentary on Ben Jonson's "Volpone", a Jacobean play. I also listened to "Niebla" , a novel by M. De Unamuno. My husband was simultaneously watching "Hamilton" for the nth time on Disney+ streaming service.  

It might seem that all we get is mass-appeal for-profit adaptations of tried and proven formats, violent or sex-soaked films and commercial garbage. Bookstores are brimming with celebrity espos├ęs but,  to anyone awake, there are a lot of excellent movies, plays and songs being written -right now- if you care to look for them.  Same with everything else, novels, paintings, graphics, dance, music and videogames. To quote Pinker:  "We are swimming in culture, drowning in it" (...) "Carla on Cheers was wittier than Dorothy Parker, and the plot of Tootsie is cleverer than the plots of any of Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies." he writes.

The reason  why the best works of are more likely to have appeared in past decades is because there has been an inevitable necessary filtering over time. It is hard to recognize the hits and the significant while it is still in its embryonic state. By the  time a piece of art is widely recognized as such, the artist might not even be around to enjoy the benefits (which is a great motivation for artists to stay alive), by the time it   has become 'popular', its best days, those of relevance and illumination, are usually over. To put down the present is a way to putting down one's rivals. "Competition of praise inclineth to a reverence of antiquity. For men contend with the living, not with the dead." -Hobbes 

"In or about December, 1910, human nature changed" said Virginia Woolf.  She was referring to the new philosophy of modernism.  Pinker makes the opposite point,that the elite arts, scholarship and criticisms are in trouble because human nature -in reality-  hasn't changed. 

Despite obvious differences and emphasis, every culture has produced art. Denis Dutton identifies seven universal signatures that define art in every culture and time.

1) Expertise or virtuosity. Technical artistic skill. 

Median (Iran) Gold Rhyton . 6-7th BC. Skills are evident.

2) Nonutilitarian pleasure. You enjoy it for art's sake. It's not material whether it contributes to a particular use or not.

Navajo Blanket. DeYoung Museum. Just as warm without the patterns.

3) Style. The object or composition satisfies rules that make it recognizable as part of an art type.

Page from "Akira" comic, manga style.

 4) Criticism. People make a point of judging, appreciating and interpreting works of art.  Art should be open to everyone's commentary  unlike ,say ,construction codes where experts opinions carry a lot more weight. Art that is "beyond" criticism and retired by force from the discussion becomes something else, propaganda mostly, and its aesthetic and imaginative force may be  neutered by the lack of options. An "official" artist, that is an artist sponsored by a state or a religion or a group is more official than artist in the short run. Some artists court controversy for controversy's sake -where allowed of course-, to force a social criticism that gets confused with one of arts' regular attributes.

5) Imitation. With a few exceptions like music and abstract art, artworks simulate experiences of the world. I would also argue abstraction and music somehow jive with neurological pleasure centers that reflect real world stimuli. Representation of something else, as in a map or a croquis of a construction plan, is a common human trait. This doesn't mean that art should tend to total simulation of the real world, that is just a choice of the artists and dependent on her  abilities.  The reference to the real world does not require perfect verisimilitude as this is an impossible task. The arts have a myriad tools at their disposal to enhance and bring attention to the expression of  physical and emotional perceptions.


Great Wake off Kanawaga , Hokusai. 1831. With a few lines and gradations we immediately see what the image represents in the real world. Even if we never saw a wave so tall, or Mount Fuji or the little boats being swept in the bottom of the print.

6) Special focus. Experience of art is bracketed from ordinary life. Singing in the shower or while working is different from the communal experience of a performance. Frames, galleries, stages, pedestals, altars... the performative aspects of art require spaces and rituals to alert us to the difference. When a cleaning crew mistakenly sweeps away a pile of sand/rags left in a gallery floor confusing it with rubbish, the cleaners  simply did not make such distinctions, the gallery is their work space and the banal aspects of the art, no skill, no use, no imitation of anything, don't contribute to its distinction. But it has been proven that sometimes top-notch musicians get no attention if they play in a NYC subway station. The art itself might simply not be striking or fast  enough to create the special focus in a one hit.


Hugo Marchand. Opera de Paris Ballet.

7) An imaginative experience. Art is raised from the mundane by an act of imagination. Imagination itself can be used for all sorts of purposes, planning, solving problems... but this is where art happens as well.


Beatrix Potter. Children's book illustration. 1901

03 May 2020

Color palette gymnastics during the lockdown

The world has shut down and plein air seems out of the question. At least for those of us who rely on public transport. Fortunately, there are plenty of exercises any artist worth his/her salt can and should perform while at home if circumstances permit. There's plenty of color charts to paint,  materials to inventory, canvas to prime and some creative gymnastics to hone one's skill. Have you ever tried painting with your less abled hand? It is great way of ignoring detail.  If ideas fail the internet is a source of spark like never before. Or commissions. Here is a picture I did for a house owner. It is painted from a photograph. Nothing new there.

"House with Schnauzer" 10"x8" oil . Commission.

But then I had a commission that required a bit of head scratching. A client wants a view of Tower Bridge that has to fit a certain vertical format. I shall note I live  in Vancouver, very very far from London. I shall also note Tower Bridge is better  suited to a horizontal format if it is to be painted in full.  I could just look at some pictures and copy them from my iPad  while pretending to be outdoors. Nothing too hard. It requires to tinker with composition and such.

Now.  The client also  requested a certain mood: neither too gloomy nor too cheery.  (they had looked at a former painting of mine) Here are a few sketches I did while pondering exactly how to approach this problem.  The watercolor is too dramatic. The one where the morning sun illuminates the towers was deemed too happy or too blue. By the way, there was no picture with such morning  lighting, I made it up.  The sketch with the grey-purple tones  approaches the mood we are looking for but I inadvertently have been making the towers taller than they are....  All these problems brought me to start thinking about the issue of "invention" of a scene.

watercolor study 

"Tower Bridge" 10"x8" oil on canvas sketch
"Tower Bridge" 10"x8" oil on canvas sketch
Why would you want to  invent? How do you go about designing a non-existent landscape? So I decided to tackle this problem the only way it could  be tackled, by inventing and trying to paint a scene I have never seen. And make it look like it was painted in another time to boot. I have no idea why, may be I was talking about India to somebody, but I settled on a scene of the Gateway to India. It is another piece of victoriana architecture, which may also tie with the Tower Bridge roaming my head. In any case, that's what I decided, to channel my inner orientalist" and phantasize about a romantic Indian scene. 

A picture of contemporary Mumbai.
Creating the composition wasn't too difficult but it wasn't as straightforward as when one is in the field. Our human brain WANTS to put all the ducks in a row and you have to fight this impulse. I knew I wanted some old time sail boats and  I knew I would remove the most modern parts of the harbour scene. However, the biggest trouble was, surprisingly,  settling on a color scheme to match the mood I was going for. Luckily I watched a video online by artist John Pototschnik where he talks about limited palettes. After much struggling with the color in my painting, his explanation of limited palettes proved invaluable to finally harmonize the piece.

"Arriving in Mumbai" An invented scene on an 11"x14" canvas.

So after finally succeeding on  at least solving the color harmonizing  issue, I think I'll explain  the method here briefly. I cannot use the images from the artist himself so I will draw my own schemes to explain the way John Pototschnik goes  about this. Since I can't use his lovely mixed OIL charts, I created quick references in water-colour to be able to explain the idea. Every artist should create its own charts to unleash the powerful deterrent against paintings that look like a salad by the addition of clashing colors where they are not intended to clash.

First: Tone always trumps color. Every color corresponds to a grayscale tone. Every painting has to work tonally before it can work as a color painting.

Second: The following palette schemes are orientative. Every color depends for its strength on the contiguous. So a brown can be considered either red or green depending on the colors that surround it. The colors left out are as important as those left in. The colors are intended to be premixed and then used as source colours with the addition of white to create tonal differences.

Third: The colors you choose as primaries are entirely your choice. My examples include a "warm palette and a cold palette. With have primaries but in one case they are warmer than the second palette. Warm palette includes "Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine Blue" The Cold palette includes " Rose Madder, Cerulean Blue and Lemon Yellow".

So here are two color wheels. In one, I chose "warm" primaries  and in the other "cool" ones.
A good palette should have primaries. All other colors are generated from those primaries unless you need a purity that is impossible to achieve by mixing. Violet is good example of a hard to achieve mix but not impossible. Again, my wheels are made with watercolor and are here for reference only.

Painting with all these colors at once is possible but harmonizing the painting with so many variables can be an ordeal. So here a first approach. Use only analogous colors. That is, colors that are in close proximity but represent  a slice of the total wheel. I think Edwin Church's beautiful paintings are the pictorial equivalent of a musical scale and harmonize through an obvious but subtle use of an analogous palette

Analogous color palettes. 
Edwin Church. "The Andes of Ecuador"  
The simplest possible harmonization is the use of complementary colors. Use a primary and its complementary (the result of mixing the two there primaries. So yellow will complement with purple. Orange with blue and red with green. I know, elementary school stuff. But effective. And well used you can't beat it. 

Complementary palettes.

Other palettes might include cross shaped color mixes, that is a set of primary and complementary and two tertiaries (mixes of a primary and a secondary) . Or an isosceles triangle with one primary and two tertiaries around the complementary. This can result in very sophisticated color  combinations.  Notice in the two "orientalists" example paintings bellow how the richness of color barely resorts to striking primaries. There is a red in the first one and a blue in the second one but the rest of the piece relies on muted secondary and tertiary gorgeousness.

Henri Regnault. Water-colour. 
"Sand Storm" Ludwig hans Fischer. 

You might also use an equilateral of three primaries. You might ask, isn't that like using ALL the colors? Well, not really because you are sticking to the chosen primaries so no warm AND cold reds allowed. The importan thing is the limit to the palette so that no interloping colors break the harmony.
Here is an example that FAILS to harmonize. The colors are off. It might be the picture but there are warm and cold versions of every color and somehow the painting doesn't know where to direct our gaze as the green jar on the window sill competes with the hanging meat and the colourful robes against tehmuted ochre of the house entrance. 

For my painting of the Indian harbour I used the odd two primaries plus two complementaries bellow. After looking at my favourite orientalist paintings, I figured many of them used  that sort of combination.  Obviously it is great fun to try to figure out what exactly did they use, even if unconsciously.  But always notice, color is like the cherry on top for perfect tonal balance.

"Sorolla" "Walk in the beach"

30 December 2019


Article I wrote for the Bowen Island Undercurrent.
Exhibition Poster

It's been quite a while since I posted anything. There simply hasn't been much to report as far as art events or fascinating thoughts. Then my exhibition in Bowen Island, "Lightscapes" finally happened this October and now I feel compelled to write this new entry. It was more than a couple of years in the making and it was a LOT of work. But its success with the amazing response it got -and 16 paintings sold -made it all completely worth it. Now that it is over I've become almost depleted. During the holidays I have scarcely picked up the brushes, only dedicating my time to a couple of commissions. It's cold outside, true, but it is more than that. I find myself flailing again and wondering if it is all worth it. I have to share the pricey apartment with all the unsold and framed paintings. About 20 more or less. And with an unemployed husband who is in a downward spiral of self confidence to boot.

Looking fulfilled.

Lots of friends came to the show.
 Yeah, It's not only a storage problem. It is a mental space problem manifesting itself in a bulky pile of framed artwork cluttering my life. Just the tip of the iceberg frankly. A symbol of baggage and yadda yadda. Sure, at the ripe age of 53 I have graduated from thinking my paintings are terrible  but I haven't managed to establish a life and a home from where to  launch the career I desire, the one I've desired for years while moving around chasing jobs, tackling the urgent to the detriment of the important as they say. It's my pity-party and I'm going to have it dammit. To add to the precariousness, my husband Armando is unable to find a job and his unemployment is running out soon. So I have to hold my breath and keep working where I can despite the fact that my salary has fallen precipitously (My former company proved to be badly managed and a lot of us ended on the street. ) Frankly, I'm tired.

Armando and I at the Hearth's gallery In Bowen island. BC
 So what now in this new year 2020. Syd Mead has just died btw, I see some hidden meaning in that as well. My love for art hasn't diminished.  I know how much it hurts me when people praise my abilities  because, although the comments are very well intentioned, their praise tends to segue into the "how come you are not just making it a an artist?' conclusion.

Let me tell you why.... nah. "why" doesn't answer anything. There are reasons for and against everything. "Why" is never the problem's clue.   I've been toying with the idea of stopping my "analog" painting altogether: rushing out to capture the light, lugging around canvases and paints and enduring onlookers and weather despite the fact that I enjoy it all so much. So very much. As I mention often, it is the only thing that seems worthwhile to me. The -one- thing I recognize as a calling. In an effort to find joy in art without the aggravation of "bulk" I have started considering switching to digital art. I know it is a steep learning curve.  I fear the technical demands of keeping up with software programs and computing details.  I know its monetary rewards won't be the result of selling actual physical artwork to clients with whom I can build a rapport  but to film studios, gaming and illustration outlets and their limited palette in the emotional spectrum : cute, horrific, majestic.  The competition is so enormous for someone starting now. It makes ones knees buckle before you even take the first step.

So if starting anew is such a demanding journey and with time running out....  I feel defeated before I start it. Not much choice though . I need a year off for starters. Other possibilities? Well considering how much Armando wants to live in London I have started putting feelers about getting a job there. No luck yet. Brexit makes it all a mess as well and I hear rumors London is loosing out to Germany in the Visual Effects industry. Our industry is so shifty, it breaks one heart. 

What about applying for some overpriced school  in London? What about a change to another less demanding career?  I tried this before by obtaining a paralegal degree -after studying at night for 6 years-  that proved quite a waste of time as well as I am not inclined to detailed scheduling and administrative work.  What about art restoration art crafts?  - I can't never shake the thought that the people that went into art restoration at the Art School in Madrid were those who had failed to manifest any type of artistic excellence and got scared into switching to the path  of least job resistance with the endless cotton ball-rubbing and crack-filling.  My cousin was an enthusiastic art conservator though. She really loved her career but died very young of cancer  which I suspect related to noxious fumes during  her work restoring of Santa Maria La Blanca of Toledo.

Teaching? Atelier Training? What the hell. I have no idea. These days you need a certificate to fail in any and all  fields. I guess, as usual, things will just keep happening to me instead of through me and I, no, we will have to remain in survival mode, that most unproductive of modes where fear grips all  our decisions and puts out the opposite of good vibes and our best self. 

A more modern framing style for the Vancouver style.

Oh..Before I forget, there was more than one show. I participated in a group show called "Figuring it Out" with artists M.J. Sarmiento and Niki Papp. It was a nice assembling of  artwork centered around the human figure. My artwork consisted of sketches of children at play  and some naked people from Wreck Beach mostly. No sales in this case and a very sparse attendance. The gallery is in an area not very apt for casual dropping by. We had a good time all around though.

A group exhibition of sketches. "Figuring In Out"

"Figuring it Out" show

"Figuring it Out". No sales but a lot of fun.

Children at play, watercolor and pen.
Here is my whole month of December (barring many sketches). The first painting is my largest painting to date here in Vancouver. A 24"x48" oil on wood commissioned by an accounting firm. It represents a soothing scene apt for the clientele that will be entering the firm with money worries. It  is a view of the Seawall.
The second painting is a commission for a client and it represents the house of my friend Mary Lynn Machado in Bowen Island. It shows her dog "Mimi" guarding the house. Because Mary Lynn is such a great dog lover , I also added the Canis major constellation in the sky even though I have no idea of whether it really ever would appear there.
The last watercolor was actually commissioned by Mary Lynn Machado herself for a friend of hers. Again dogs are prominent in this piece.

"SeaWalk Stroll" 24"x48" opil on wood board.
"Canis Major' 9"x12"

"Dog Walk" watercolor.

21 June 2018

David Milne, great or awful?

Fresh from the walls of the Dulwich Gallery in London comes the David Milne show to the Vancouver Art Gallery. David Milne is a somewhat unusual artist. He was born in Ontario, Canada from a family of Scottish immigrants and he died in Ontario but,  in between,  he set out to discover the world art currents of his day and worked restlessly at creating his own style. He developed a very recognizable style of work like many of his contemporaries, some of which have been shown at the Dulwich recently: Emily Carr and Eric Ravilious come to mind. 

The beginning. 

David Milne started with a bang, he did really well in school and when his calling towards art struck he left for New York where he studied at the Arts League  and absorbed every current that passed through the galleries in the vibrant pre-war Manhattan. From the Impressionists to Matisse he took it all in and soon created a distinct look and was exhibiting with some frequency. 

His early style is very characteristic, it almost has a paint-by-numbers feel: A great emphasis on flat colors and simple shapes, a prevalence of thick white impasto and a very sparse use of materials. It contains he ingredients for the rest of his career and,  from this point onwards,  the prevalence of one element like composition or color or sparseness will depend on circumstances without deviating too much. 

He supported himself as a commercial artist but he is quoted often as saying that  "There is a greater difference between an artist and a commercial artists than between a bishop and a burglar." Clearly he had not met enough bishops or burglars but, be it is at it may, he soon tired of his day job and the Manhattan stress where he failed to secure enough sales of his paintings to make a living. Oh, he also married a poor woman, Patsy,  that he dragged through his existence until they finally broke it off.

"Patsy reading" oil on canvas

"Union Station" watercolor

The woods: 

 He moved North to live in a more secluded area with his wife and dedicate himself to his art without so many monetary constraints as the big city demanded. He lived very frugally in Boston Corners. When money ran out he would work managing a tea house and becoming a handyman, he even built his own teahouse but sold it quickly eager to get painting. This he did to the dismay of his wife, straining an already  difficult relationship.

His paintings start to become almost like camouflage tarps. It's hard to see the figures and the tonal values are achieved more by a gathering of color cells than by any gradation or color harmony. His use of material is always sparse. He said his Scottish roots pushed him to make 'a lot with very little' or some such nonsense.  Line and composition are the dominant elements here  with everything else practically reduced to three notes: white, black and local color.

At this point in the exhibition I started to ponder why he would persist in this distinctly shattered and dry style.  I always have to second-guess myself when I see artists who despite all evidence against them -  keep in mind Milne was unknown and poor at this time with no prospects of ever 'making it' and destroying his marriage in the process -  hammer at it with such stubbornness. It is hard to fake such stubborn pursuit but does it really accomplish great art, this dogged repetition?

"Patsy reading with a cat" oil on canvas
The war: 

Milne never saw combat as he was stationed in Quebec chasing down deserters. By the time he was sent abroad the war was over. He found out about the Canadian War Memorials Fund that commissioned artists to depict the devastation of WWI  and was soon painting said desolation.
At this point my frustration with this artist reaches a high pitch. The paintings, drawings in watercolor drybrush really, are very  flat and sparse and almost decorative no matter how many times the curators try to elicit the idea that precisely such sparse emptiness is the most fitting commentary on the massacre of Vimy Ridge or Paschendale. I don't buy it.

"Ypres ruins" 1919

"The concert at the Y" 1919

"Kimmel Park Camp.Breakfast is Served" watercolor 1919

"Road to Passchendaele, German pillboxes"  1919 watercolor

"The Petite Place, Arras"  watercolor 1919

Back to the woods: 

Milne got a big boost from his war time painting and his work was shown with good reviews at the Royal Academy. He thought he was ready to break into the Canadian market but upon arriving in Toronto he found out otherwise.  Despondent and frustrated he retreated back to his cabins in the woods and kept paintingHis marriage finally collapses after several separations. During this time he focuses on his usual themes of woods and mud and reflections and boulders as well as nympheas, water lilies.  These are a million miles away from Monet's evanescent blooms,  Milne's flowers are muddy fossils in comparison.

His art now reaches its most accomplished state if we understand by accomplishment whatever Milne had in mind, not what an unaware museum visitor would consider beautiful, interesting or even shocking. The artist that most often comes to mind at this point is Morandi of all people. Like Milne, Morandi was obsessive about his still lives as if trying to extract the soul of objects through sheer economy of means.

* Lines and composition dominate, Even foliage or reflections and foam or weather  become level with the rest of the solid features of the landscape or still life by virtue of allowing no hierarchy of importance. Even his sketches are composed of ghostly lines.

* Color is reduced to notes of black, white "filler" and some local color that remains somewhat arbitrary as on a desiccated  body. There is no allowance or very little for atmosphere or gradations.

*Paint handling is so direct and economic, the canvas texture tends to dominate end the canvas itself is a big portion of the coloring as it is see through.

*The theme is always the same, rocks, mud, trunks, water and snow. He rarely lifts his eyes from the ground. His still lives are also very monotematic, variations of very few  subjects. Even things that would scream for wild coloring like maple saplings or mine shafts inundated with leeching chemicals get pummeled in muddy browns.

*Someone has pointed out already that the photos he took to help his work are more expressive than the paintings. It s true. 

I am not sure if Milne ever articulated the reasons for this muddy landscapes. Many artist have had a go at textures and earthy feel with a lot more success in my opinion. There is no environmental or higher message here that we know of so we are left to guess or move on. 

"Pond at Big Moose" oil on canvas

"waterfall white" oil on canvas

"A gentle snow" oil on canvas

"Spring thaw" oil on canvas

"Water lilies in a jar" oil on canvas

"Inundated mine shaft" oil on canvas


Milne finally got some recognition from Canadian art deities in his mid fifties. He became highly collected by patrons Vincent and Alice Massey which bought 300 paintings in one sitting at 5$ a piece which in the 30's it wasn't as bad as it sounds even if it was a bargain hunt.  His subject matter became more whimsical and poetic even when the size of his canvases diminished. These were actually my favorite paintings. Sometimes composed of only three colors but quite poetic.

Milne  married again, had a son and quite a bit of success in his later years so it all paid off somehow.  That somehow is still a mystery to me but it opens so many questions about persistence, those who never made it and the importance of good patrons/dealers when one is a bit hopeless.

"Star setting"

"Big Dipper"

"Smoke" the result of Milne culling some of his work via bonfire

"Jam jar" oil on canvas

Here is a video from the Dulwich gallery. 

In any case, if you hated Milne as some people are bound to do, you can always head upstairs to see the exhibition on "Cabin  Fever" a review of our  log cabin architectural and life style  fantasy through the last century and ours.