Seeing is believing!

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)


The role of many artists is to bring to life for others the subjects that move the artist.  In the bringing to life of the subject, the artist sees things others frequently miss.  The artist seeks to portray those sparks and bits of emotion that might otherwise be missed but for artistic expression and in the process create memorable art.

Edgar Degas brought to life the world of ballet in late nineteenth century Paris.  His beautiful portrayals of dancers are beloved the world over.  His sculpture, “The Little Ballerina, aged Fourteen,” is perhaps one of the better known sculptures from the Impressionist period.  But his painting of “The Absinthe Drinkers” depicts the despair and hopelessness of these people in a way that might be missed by the average person if it not for the hand of the artist.  The dancers are paintings of lightness and beauty.  The drinkers are sad and depressing yet the painting is quite beautiful.  Degas took a sad scene and made it a beautiful work of art and in the process forces us to look at the painful life of a group of people with little lightness and joy in their world.  The artist has made us see people we might have been inclined to pass by without acknowledging.

Robert Thompson of The Art of has an article on the website titled: “Where do you find art?”  The article points out how a beautiful photograph of snow shoes tells  a deeper story behind the photo.   The photographer has portrayed something in these simple snowshoes that leads us to want to know more about the story behind the shoes.  We might ask the question, “Why are those shoes there and where have they been?” The artist has made us see something we might otherwise not see.  And in seeing we learn an amazing story of survival against unbelievable odds.

Artist Luke Roland asks the question, “What do you see when you look at a blank canvas?”  He asks artists to think about what excites them, what do they want the world to see.  Roland directs artists “to do something worth remembering.”  The artist puts on the canvas what excites him/her.  That excitement comes through into the painting giving the art that unmistakable quality that makes the artwork “worth remembering.”  Sparks of excitement create a vision we might not otherwise have seen and now will not forget.

The great master, Edgar Degas, through his art, made us see the lyrical beauty and the behind the scenes work of ballet.  He also enlightened us to the ugly reality of absinthe drinkers.  Robert Thompson gave us snowshoes and made us see a story of survival.  Luke Roland encourages artists to go for what excites them and put it on canvas.  Artists who heed these words of experience will perhaps be able to make others “see” beauty and sadness, a story behind an artwork, and the excitement that makes art worth remembering.  Isn’t that why we paint?  We want others to see what we see.

Over 100 of Degas’ art can been seen at The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA.


degas3 degas2

For more on “The Little Dancer, aged Fourteen” here is a lecture from The Norton Simon Museum on the subject.

To Muse or Not to Muse

Opinions on whom and what is a muse abound.  There are differing opinions on the origins of muse, though all accounts attribute the muse to the ancient Greeks.  Some accounts say the muses are the nine daughters of Zeus. Others say the muses are the three daughters of Apollo.  All accounts state the muse is artistic inspiration of some form.

Many people tend to think of a muse as a woman or mistress.  Picasso is said to have had several.  Other artists frequently had the same woman appear over and over in paintings. Historians attribute the appearance of these women as the artist’s muse, mistress, lover, etc.  As the Ancient Greek muses were women, this is likely why, along with the artist’s penchant for painting certain females regularly.  But for a large number of artists, muse is place or nature.

Places associated with artists frequently become as popular as the paintings.  Monet’s Givenchy is a much sought after tourist destination.  Monet’s garden at Givenchy was his muse later in his life.  And Monet is most known for his Water Lily paintings inspired by the water lilies in the pond in his garden.   Monet’s greatest success can possibly be attributed to these paintings from his later years at the garden of his inspiration.

California artist, Rod Jones states of the muse, “you can’t necessarily pick one, they often pick you.”  He has more on the muse in a wonderful blog post titled, “Every Artist needs a Muse.”  The blog is well worth a thorough read.  This blog post can be found here. 

One of my favorite artists is Paul Cezanne.  Cezanne started out in Paris with the Impressionists and painted there for many years before returning to his native home of Aix-en-Provence where he painted many paintings of the countryside.  Cezanne’s still life and figurative paintings are quite beautiful but the landscapes come to life in a truly dramatic way.  The colors are so varied and vivid in his landscapes that it sets them quite above the others, in my opinion.  Provence was Cezanne’s muse and his greatest success came after his return to his hometown.

I agree with Rod Jones that you can’t pick muse, muse picks you, whether it is human or nature.  The issue for many artists is to pay attention when the muse makes her pick.

A slide show of Cezanne’s works is here.

The movie “In Search of Cezanne” can be found here.

The life that comes through in Cezanne’s Provence work is so vivid:




For more on Cezanne go here and here.

A Catfish Among the Mackerel


The movie Catfish brought that word as a descriptive into the general language where it has found a place in the Urban Dictionary.  IMDb quotes the character, Vince Pierce from the movie as he describes the term:

“Vince Pierce: They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.”

Slate magazine gives a more in-depth synopsis of the origin of the term but it took today’s world of social networking to bring the term to life as the subject of a movie by that name and a series on MTV.  It is well worth reading the article for deeper understanding.

Reading about the movie brought back to me an incident from years ago that still brings a smile at the memory.  While traveling through the beautiful Cotswold region of England, we encountered an elderly gentleman working hard at cultivating his status as “local character.”  He was sitting on a bench just outside the gates to the churchyard obviously waiting to waylay any tourists coming to view the historic church.  He called himself a catfish among the mackerel because, as he told us, he was a relative new comer to the village only having lived there twenty years.  As new -comer he was not able to be one of the local mackerel so he had relegated himself to nipping at their fins by ambushing tourists.  He went on to give us a detailed history of the town and the church.  I never forgot him or the village.

That village in the Cotswolds will always stand out to me because of a curmudgeonly Catfish who brought it to life for us by nipping at the fins of the mackerel.  As artists, isn’t our role to be catfish?

The Cotswold region of England with its thatched cottages, lush roses and lovely winding streets is a great place to look for artistic inspiration.


                        picture from the downloadable brochure on the website


What makes people want to spend millions to acquire particular paintings or stand in line for hours to see a museum exhibition of art?  We have likely read many different accounts on the subject from art historians, curators and critics.  But do they really answer the question?  Descriptions of paint applications, color combinations, subject matter, composition all come in to play.  When looking at a great work of art, all of those features are plainly visible.  Walking through a street fair featuring original contemporary art will likely also invoke descriptions of paint applications, etc.  One such street fair I attended recently had many very good paintings.  Why aren’t some of those artists in museums?  What sets certain ones off as different?  I doubt it has anything to do with cutting off one’s ear but that does add to the drama! One guess of mine is energy and magnetism.  There is a palatable energy that surrounds the works.  That statement may elicit metaphysical connotations but that is too simplistic!  The energy and magnetism certain paintings arouse defies the average explanation.  People are magnetically drawn to some art. Van Gogh’s paintings invoke that magnetic energy.  His sunflower paintings are well known world wide.  Much has been written and said about his life and his work.  Do those accounts actually explain why many of us will wait in line to catch a brief glimpse of the sunflowers paintings?  Does that explain why one sunflower painting went for multi-millions at auction in recent years?

Van Gogh's "Sunflowers"
Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”

The Van Gogh museum website carries a wealth of information about his life and work: The Yellow House Museum contains information on Van Gogh’s life at Arles where the sunflower paintings were created:

The “Life” of a Painting

While shopping for a night stand recently, I visited several popular chain home decor stores.  In each store, I took the time to check out the art being sold to a mass shopping public.  Each store had some nice pieces that would look pleasant in any home or office.   When builders set up model homes to show to perspective buyers, the houses are always decorated with nice pictures.  Nobody lives in these nicely decorated model homes with the nice pictures.  Model homes lack the signs of actual people living in them.  Likewise, the pleasant paintings lack the life that tells you a living, breathing person was communicating through art.

One particular print in a popular store was of a row of birch trees. It was a nice picture.   It would look nice in any home.  However, I found myself comparing this print with the “life” in a Wolf Kahn painting of birch trees.  The first picture would nicely coordinate with a home’s decor and blend well with furniture and drapery.  A Wolf Kahn print would immediately draw attention and dominate the decor.  A Wolf Kahn would have magnetic energy.  A Wolf Kahn would have “life.”

Do we seek to create nice pictures to blend with pleasant decor or do we paint “life?”

Wolf Kahn talks about his work:

The Courage to Paint

“To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.”  Georgia O’Keeffe

Was O’Keeffe right?  Does art take courage?  Painting takes time, effort and energy.  But is courage behind the time, effort and energy?  Courage is perhaps the necessary force for getting art out of the studio and into the public domain.  Is it also the main force in the studio? Does it take courage to look at a blank white canvas and begin to create?  I think so.

A blank white canvas can be very frightening.  There may be an image floating around pushing to get onto that canvas but taking those first steps to get it there are sometimes slow in coming.  For many artists, the first step is actually placing the paint on the palette, deciding what colors will go into the painting and how they will be mixed.  For others, it is deciding which brushes to use.  Will you start with a round brush?  For me, it is deciding what ground color to lay on first.  The process of preparation may also be the process of gathering courage.

Gather courage. Proceed to paint!

A Place of Enchantment

“I do not understand how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.”     Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of Cross Creek and The Yearling


Do we, as artists, require a place of enchantment?  Can we create without a place of enchantment?  Do we have to physically be at that place or can we go there in heart and mind?

Rawlings was a moderately successful New York writer until she moved to a small Central Florida orange grove near a place called Cross Creek.  Eventually Rawlings wrote about the people of Cross Creek, FL.  Her writings about life in the Florida orange grove rocketed Rawlings to her place as a treasured American icon after the movie The Yearling, starring Gregory Peck, hit the big screen.  She drew her creative nourishment from the beauty of her place of enchantment.

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