Especially Painting

“Painting is damned difficult – you always think you’ve got it, but you haven’t.” –Paul Cézanne

This weekend I participated in a plein air event in Leland, Michigan. It was the first of the season for me. I’ve done many such paint outs and they are almost always fun, but in reality, they are quite a challenge since there is more than a little expectation to paint something worthwhile by the end of the day.

This year I felt oddly confident in what I wanted to paint and how I wanted to approach it. I decided that I would take my current way of working and simply move it from my studio and do it on a smaller scale outdoors, on location, in gouache.

It was not too long into my first painting that the words of Monsieur Cézanne came back to me…

My new personal quote from the weekend is, “Take nothing for granted. Nothing! Especially when it has anything to do with painting.”

As someone that has done a fair amount of sailing and bike riding, and who also knows that while those activities can be a ridiculous amount of fun there are some very real dangers that can in fact kill you.

As difficult as my reality might’ve been painting over this past weekend, in hindsight I take comfort in the knowledge that it wasn’t going to kill me. Not a chance.

Nevertheless, the wisdom of Cézanne continues to ring true through all these years.

As much as you might like to think that you are on a roll and that you have momentum built up in your work, the truth is each painting you begin starts at square one. This is not a bad thing, by the way, it just is.

While you may know something that you didn’t before, keep in mind: “Take nothing for granted. Nothing! Especially when it has anything to do with painting.”

Clearly, We Need to Eat More Potatoes

Few things are as straightforward and simple as cooking a baked potato. Wash it and put in a 425º oven until it is soft. Once on your plate, add butter, sea salt, fresh ground pepper, fresh chopped chives, and if it is really a special occasion, a dollop of sour cream. Does one really need more from a kitchen experience?

It’s just so clear.

I Can See Clearly Now, a quintessential song of summer by Johnny Nash always brings a smile to my face. Because for whatever reason he can see clearly now, the important thing is that he CAN see clearly.

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.
I can see all obstacles in my way.
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.
It’s gunna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day.

I’ve been pondering clarity in my own work.

Granted making a painting will always be more complicated than baking a potato or singing along with Mr. Nash. But being able to see the obstacles in my way is so helpful, and when the dark clouds of hard work clear, it does become a bright sunshiny day.

Having clarity about my work is up to me. Being clear about how I proceed through my painting process, then seeing the finished work clearly enough to be able to explain it to myself is, maybe, all that is necessary.

Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies and baked potatoes.


Fires. Large bodies of water. Hypnotic lashes of flames, the lapping and crashing of waves, are both similarly transporting. There are few things as engaging.

What is it about these two elemental phenomena that captivate? They are so much the antithesis of each other, yet they can have a similar soothing effect on us.

I love to go to the shore of Lake Michigan to rest my brain — it works quite well for me. There I can get to a place of complete mind quiet.

Watching the flames of a controlled fire are endlessly fascinating to me too. They don’t share the same repetitive rhythm of the lake waves, but they hold a wondrous quality. Yet fire does not clear my mind or give me the same sort of reset as those waves.

Consider campfire stories. They are as common as campfires themselves. Until last night I had always thought campfire yarns were an inescapable tradition shared between the spinner and the listener.

I had a large pile of sticks and branches in my yard that has been piling up for years. Such as it was, I found myself, by myself, like a good boy scout tending a fire. The moon appeared and then the stars.

As I became lost in the flames and glowing embers, the fire started sharing stories with me — but they were surprisingly familiar stories, filled with my own memories. The lake never tells me those stories as I stare into the surf.

Is it possible that as water clears my mind, fire fills my head? That there really is some extra substance to the diametric opposition of these two elemental forces?

Opposites don’t always attract.


       MUSIC CUE: Générique by Miles Davis

It’s 1 AM, rain-wet pavement reflects the light of signs and tail lights in long shards of color.

Midnight college radio offers a soundtrack that turns a familiar daytime drive into an epic cross-town road trip.

The red and blue strobes of a squad car spark in the blackness of the night, serving and protecting and simultaneously pointing out at least one of somebody’s string of tonight’s probable bad decisions.

The practicalities of the after-midnight hours make one feel imprudent for always sleeping them away.

All night drive-thrus offer bad tacos handed into your driver’s window by a kid, like a slow-motion pit-stop drink given to Carroll Shelby in the 24-hour race at LeMans.

The red lights have turned flashing yellow, wave you through town on a non-stop roll.

Predictability is so predictable till it is not. We think that we should long for predictability. Night drives make us keenly aware that there is exquisite beauty in the unexpected.

Insomnia, like a pebble in your shoe — you can never get used to it, or past it, if you stay in bed.