Cloudy Thinking

The arts have an extraordinary ability to enhance our lives, to help us heal, and to bring comfort in times of great stress.”–Dana Gioia,  NEA Chairman, 2003, (from Creativity in

How would you like to sit before a painting of what looks like bleeding clouds while waiting to have medical tests? My friend, Sue, related this story to me from her personal experience.  Do artists consider the potential audience when creating?  Does it matter?  Do designers consider the audience over whether or not an art piece works on a wall?

It was an issue that came up in The Art to Heart Project, (more here).  Artists were given selection criteria for art based on the research of Dr. Roger S. Ulrich and others about the effects on patients when viewing certain types of art.  As we measured the effects of the art on patient ambulation in our project, we didn’t want negative responses to the art to influence the outcome.  Once artists understood that reasoning, they created on these guidelines with very little difference in their process.  All the artists described the experience of creating for a patient population to be gratifying.

If the bleeding cloud artist did not know where the painting was going once sold, then the designer made the choice.  In either case, did anybody stop to think of the potential mindset of the viewers?  Bleeding Clouds might be interesting in some places but probably not in a doctor’s office.   Which would help you relax while waiting for your medical test results: bleeding clouds or a forest of green trees?

Say What?????

Any sort of pretension produces mediocrity in life and in art.”  Margot Fonteyn (from brainy quotesImage)

While walking around at a large art exhibit, (see “Voices”), my friend and I overheard various comments and opinions on the art.  One conversation left us so puzzled that it continues to produce a smile even now.  It was the perfect stereotype of a conversation many people, think goes on at an art exhibit.

Two people are standing in front of a large abstract painting.  Each is holding a glass of wine while discussing the painting.  As we leaned in to listen, one said to the other, “But is it ethically valid?”  My friend and I looked back at the painting while trying to contain our confusion.  “Huh?”

I’m thinking, “Hmmm. Ethical and valid.  What does that have to do with this painting?”  Maybe the title gave an indication but I couldn’t see the title.  I lost track of the beauty of the piece in trying to figure what that statement could possibly mean in relation to the painting.    I’m still shaking my head years later.  Maybe others can enlighten me.  I didn’t get it.

Evidently mom was right when she said, “Talking too much and eavesdropping can both have unintended consequences.”  I didn’t realize at the time, she was referring to art.

Does art speak for itself?

Right Brain Vision, Left Brain Knowledge

Screen shot 2013-09-23 at 10.41.48 AM“It is in this sense, I believe, that the field of education has much to learn from the arts about the practice of education.”  Elliot Eisne(from   

Artists regularly utilizing drawing in their work know it sharpens visual skills and heightens awareness of the focused subject.  Science is coming around to that awareness, as well, thanks to innovative science instructors like North Carolina State University’s Jennifer Landon.  Art Plantae Today has an excellent interview with Landon.  Left- brain scientists are embracing right -brain art.

Landon is an instructor of biology and requires her students to participate in regular drawing activities.  She set out to prove that participation in drawing would enhance student knowledge of biology.  Art Plantae will be following with the results.

Having taught botanical drawing for several years, I can see that Landon is likely right.  Once I began to draw more flora and fauna, I developed enhanced awareness of growth, color, shape and more.  My guess is that many other visual artists and photographers would say the same.

The evidence is increasingly proving: right -brain or left -brain, we really need both.


You can’t do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh.”

                                                            John Singer Sargent   (from Brainyquotes)     

Sketching is vital to developing artistic vision.  For some artists it requires focus and discipline. For others, sketching is the artistic vision.  As sketching evolves by the hand of the later, it gains an energy and drama that is quite compelling.

The blog, Doodlemum, is one such example.  The artist’s doodles became the story of the artist’s life.  The richness and poignancy of the work is immensely compelling.  We want to be in Doodlemum’s life.  Doodlemum’s doodles went on to become a book.  Doodlemum’s doodles will inspire artistic vision and bring on a smile.

It is not always easy to make the effort to prepare for painting by making preliminary sketches.  If there is an image in the artist’s head, it can be difficult to slow down the process and take the time to develop the concept through sketching before picking up a brush.  How many frustrations can be avoided by taking the time to expand the “head” image by sketching first?  And who knows, our sketchbooks may just take on lives of their own!

Swamp sketch

A Nomadic Nature

Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” Twyla Tharp (from Artpromotivate)

Are artists running away through their art?  Is running away a good thing?  So many people wish they could run away everyday.  Few have the means.  Artists do it daily.

Running away is generally thought of in a negative sense.   Running away and escapism seem to be interchangeable to the vast majority of people who are not artists as though it is a bad thing.  Runaways, who are not artists, do so as a last resort because something in life has become unbearable.  Rather than deal with it, they run away, thus the negative stigma.   If artists regularly escape into art it would indicate a positive action.  As Tharp points out, we run away without leaving home.

In an entertaining travel blog called Nomadic Matt, the author states,  “And, instead, I’m running towards everything – towards the world, exotic places, new people, different cultures, and my own idea of freedom.”  He is making the argument for a lifestyle of running away.  Even though it sounds exciting it is not always practical for most of us so we do it through art.  Some artists are fortunate enough to do both.  Being an artist may be one way to live a nomadic life.  Maybe we are all nomads at heart.  Some just stay home while running away.

I regularly run away to the swamp.  I wonder where others run to?

Swamp Sentinels
Swamp Sentinels

A Heart Falls in the Woods

“Art is Literacy of the heart”—Elliot Eisner

The heart speaks through art as any artist can attest but do others always hear?  Does it matter as long as the heart speaks?  Artists are driven to continue to speak whether anyone is listening or not.  Does it matter to the artist whether or not his/her heart is heard?  Is the point to give voice to the heart and not worry about whom, if anyone, is listening? No.

As long as an artist can make art, that is vital.  However, when you have worked so hard to give the heart a voice, it becomes important to follow through and also make a way for that voice to be heard.  The art is not complete until its voice has been heard.  Frequently, for whatever reason, we neglect this part of the art equation.  The heart is speaking.  We must see that it gets heard.

Photographer Tom Kostas states, “Art and poetry have revealed more to me than any other field of study I have encountered, including philosophy, in my life.”  What is revealed from the heart through art is important to pass on, to share.

Helping the heart get heard can be difficult for some artists, especially if introverted.  Perhaps that makes it even more important to find a way to get heard.  Does the heart break if we don’t carry the work all the way through to the end result of being heard?  Art made in isolation and not put out for others to experience is like the tree that falls in the woods.  Does it make a sound if no one is listening?  Thoughts anyone??

Hear more from Dr. Elliot Eisner:

Never Ending Nature

Do artists see nature differently than other people?   Do artists seek to replicate nature, enhance it or just see something others don’t?  Paintings more often than not have a life that is different from what one might see with the naked eye.  When artists choose nature as subject, nature changes, becomes something more. Whether landscape, still life or botanical illustration, nature through the eyes of the artist shimmers with a vivid electrical quality that might have previously escaped notice.

The website, Skinny Artists has “150 wonderful art quotes that can inspire.”  Among the quotes is one from Russian born artist, Marc Chagall.  Chagall states, “Great art picks up where nature ends.”  Chagall’s message is the goal nature artists are working for.  These artists are enhancing nature and bringing it to life in a way not usually seen by the average eye.  Nature artists seek to give notice to simple beauty that might otherwise be missed.

Botanical illustration is frequently categorized as more science than art.  Yet what botanical artists are depicting is more than simple scientific re-creation. Their illustrations give nature the intrigue that leads us to look more closely.  Margaret Mee, (1909-1988), conservationist and botanical artist, brought the Amazon Rainforest to life through her paintings of orchids and other exotic plant life she encountered on her excursions into the untouched rainforests.  The vibrancy of nature in Mee’s art sparked an interest in the rainforests that led to later efforts to protect and preserve this vast eco-system.

Today the beauty of nature through botanical art is fostered and nurtured by the American Society of Botanical Artists, (ASBA) and The Society of Botanical Artists, (SBA) in the United Kingdom and other national, international and regional organizations.  These organizations continually show us how wonderful the world of nature is when viewed through the magic of the artist’s hand.  Botanical artists are the portraitists of plant life, highlighting the beauty and uniqueness of individual horticultural species.  Botanical artists “pick up where nature ends” to open our eyes to the beauty around us.

Nature is never ending while art lives.

The following Margaret Mee painting and others can be seen at the Audubon House Gallery of Natural Art.


The Place of the Singing Heart

]The late Steve Jobs is much in the news these days with the movie about his life recently released.  There is no doubt that Steve Jobs changed our world.  Whatever people may think of Jobs, the person, what he did for all our lives is now unquestionable history.

Carmine Gallo wrote an excellent article in Forbes Magazine (here) about how Steve Jobs followed his heart and encouraged others to do the same.  Gallo quotes Jobs as saying, “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me.  Going to bed at night saying, I’ve done something wonderful.  That’s what matters.”   Where would we be today if Jobs hadn’t followed his heart?

This doesn’t mean to say that Steve Jobs was always successful.  He had many missteps and failures along the way.  But he continued to do what made his heart sing and eventually he was immensely successful.  The key was to continue to do what made his heart sing.

We don’t have to have the success of Steve Jobs to be a success.  Being a success is doing what makes your heart sing, whatever that may be.  For artists, art makes our hearts sing.  But it is not always easy to jump through the fear and get to the place of the singing heart.  Taking those first steps can feel like you are about to leap off of Pike’s Peak with no clothes on.

In a wonderful blog, Rachel Jepson Wolf describes the first steps she took to write her blog.  Wolf states, “It was simultaneously, scary, thrilling and embarrassing to hit ‘publish’ on those first few posts.  But I did it anyway.”  She took those first steps because writing her blog makes her heart sing.  Wolf’s blog is here.

For visual artists, it may be putting those first few slashes of color on canvas or paper.  That first brushstroke is the hardest for me.  For you, it could be the first few steps of whatever your process is.  For some it is deciding what colors to mix.  Others may first start an under drawing or under painting.   Listen to what song your heart is singing and leap.

Artist Nicole Docimo has a delightful short video on listening to what makes your heart sing.  Her blog is here.

In his Steve Jobs article, Carmine Gallo has an unattributed saying that states, “Don’t die with the music still in you.”  Are we listening?

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!