Wednesday, September 14, 2022

GETTING UNSTUCK / Finding my way back to painting

We have all been here.

If you have put in a serious chunk of years in a creative pursuit, at some point you have experienced being stuck. Whether you are a writer, visual artist, composer, choreographer, or scientist -- whatever the field -- if it is solely up to you to identify your direction and summon the motivation to work towards it, at some point you have wallowed in the state of stuckness. And in all likelihood you've experienced it more than once.

Since struggle and confusion are often present in the creative process and nourish the evolution of the work, what is it that separates being stuck from the typical uncertainties we face? Why is it so emotionally demoralizing and physically debilitating? For me, the somewhat routine experiences of uncertainty and struggle in the studio are signs of active engagement in the process of making. However, being stuck marks a complete retreat from the process of making, a halt in engagement.

When I am in the midst of creative uncertainty, yet engaged in the process of making, my central question is this: Am I struggling because I haven't yet figured out how to manifest what I am reaching for, or is the struggle primarily because I recognize in my gut that what I'm reaching for isn't really where I want to land? When I'm stuck, I can't even engage with the questions. I can only sit with the oppressive weight of emptiness.

. . . . . . . . 

My most recent sojourn in the wilderness of stuckness hit hard in October 2021 after what had been a good year. Despite the pandemic, 2021 started with a solo exhibit that ran concurrently with a group show I curated, and I also participated in a number of group exhibits. Over the summer I completed several groups of new works on paper which expanded on the direction of the work I had exhibited earlier in the year. In addition to painting, I was working steadily on a new series of drawings with energy and curiosity. All was good in the studio, until it wasn't. I started feeling listless, showing up in the studio but barely working. It took enormous effort to overcome inertia and a feeling of pointlessness whenever I attempted to paint. While I was still excited by the paintings I had done during the previous several years, I felt no urgency or curiosity about continuing on in that direction. I kept drawing, but painting became a form of agony. Was the disruption of the pandemic finally catching up with me? Was I demoralized by the ongoing political morass which made any creative pursuit feel like an indulgence? Had I become too isolated from artist friends? Yes, yes, and yes. But despite all, I assumed that this hiccup with painting would be over fairly soon.

After many, many weeks of sitting, I finally acknowledged that I was lost. Perhaps it was time to move in a new direction with painting. But I couldn't summon up the energy to start wandering, which is the only way to uncover where I wanted to go. This wasn't just a hiccup and there was no way of knowing how long it would last. And even though drawing remained a wonderfully rich experience, painting was completely out of reach. I didn't pick up a brush for the next six months.

. . . . . . . 

Stuckness is a paralysis that cuts off curiosity, it is the paralysis of fear, the paralysis that suggests that you will remain lost. In the midst of stuckness, we feel trapped, lethargic, angry, and purposeless. We may wonder why we put ourselves through this intensely personal misery -- no one asks us to do this, we are here on our own. While some may find it less debilitating than others, I can't imagine that anyone feels joy in the midst of it. 

In the midst of stuckness, I might say that I've hit a wall, worked my way into a corner, or in a bout of extreme frustration and self-loathing, been banging my head against the wall. (Surely, you have been there -- making the same painting over and over again, failing miserably each time, but expecting this time, this time, please, please, please, this time I'll figure it out.)

During periods of ordinary struggle, I take in stride the missteps, detours, and simply awful paintings. They happen, I learn from them, and keep going. When I'm in the midst of stuckness, I feel as if everything misses the mark, or goes too far, or not far enough. The occasional moments when I think, 'Aha! I've found it!" are quickly followed by despair. I'm bewildered that I've arrived at this place of complete unknowing when not so long ago, time in the studio was filled with curiosity and excitement.

. . . . . . . . 

Now that I am no longer stuck, and merely wandering in confusion, I can acknowledge that there was a positive outcome from the experience.

I've learned that being stuck is a sign that I am skirting the edge of disruptive change. There will be a prolonged period of being uncomfortable as I slog through unfamiliar territory. But I also know that finding my way through it will eventually be followed by periods of flow and exuberance in the studio. Being stuck has within it the seeds of new understandings, and although it is painful, it has the potential to reinvigorate the creative process. I've learned that rather than viewing it as something to fear, it is best to welcome it when it arrives (clearly easier said than done) and let it take its course.

I continue stumbling my way towards wherever it is I am heading. The disappointments still greatly outnumber the few paintings that hold tantalizing possibilities, even if many of them don't quite sing. While most of the work of the past six months has been painted over, I've held onto some of the more provocative detours because they hold clues for future wanderings. The confusion continues, but it is a beginning. 

What is your story about getting unstuck?

(At the end of this post is a small selection of where I wandered over the past six months).

. . . . . . . . 

What follows is a list, in no particular order, of how I found my way back to painting. I wrote it as a reminder to myself for the next time I find myself stuck. 

  • Let go of habitual patterns of working (use unfamiliar materials, work in a way that makes you uncomfortable).
  • Notice what you are noticing.
  • Don't get attached to anything you make; nothing is precious
  • Don't be trapped by rules; open yourself up to what you usually avoid.
  • If you make something that intrigues you, document it; be prepared to lose it, rather than tiptoeing around it
  • Even if you think you've arrived, don't narrow the exploration too quickly. Stay curious.
  • Work small -- it is a quicker way to experiment with less investment of time and materials
  • Make time to dance with abandon, even if you don't feel like it.
  • Allow yourself to luxuriate in the work of artists you admire.
  • Recognize that what may feel like a landing spot might just be a detour, some part of what you are trying to understand but not necessarily the direction you are seeking.
  • Allow yourself to be uncomfortable
  • Put on music that will get you dancing.
  • Ask questions, don't make statements.
  • Be courageous; you may be here a long while.
  • Dwell in the act of making, not in what you are making. Paint, but don't try to make paintings. Draw, but don't try to make drawings.
  • Trust that when you are ready to understand what you've been looking for, your gut will tell you that you've arrived.
  • Keep going.
  • Keep dancing.
. . . . . . . . 

If you are still reading and curious about where things went....

What did disruptive change look like for me?  The essence of this change was to bring drawing into painting. If you take a quick scroll along the sidebar of this blog, you can see that my drawings and paintings have always been on different paths. The drawings are about the energy of line and the paintings dwell on atmospheric color and light. Although some series of paintings have included geometric elements, the painted line was completely absent from my work.  

A few months before stuckness fully set in, I noticed myself thinking about bringing a different kind of complexity to my paintings, possibly something about line or form, but I had no 'vision' of what that meant. Fear (and with it, paralysis) crept in because the possibilities were endless. Instead of exploring with brushes and paint, I looked for clues in my drawings, a fool's errand because I've never drawn as preparation for painting. Although created by the same hand, heart, and mind, my drawings and paintings live in separate universes. 

The paralysis about painting came to an end when I fully accepted that to bring drawing into painting, I had to put drawing to the side for a while. The only way forward was to jump in, start wrestling with paint and brushes, and get dirty in the mud. 

Below are examples of several stops along the way as I explored different interactions of line with the field. For the most part, my palette has now shifted into watery blues, after many years of working with warmer hues. Although the work is still unsettled, a direction is beginning to emerge.

March 2022. Small oil on mylar, 

March 2022. Small oil on mylar
May 2022. Oil on mylar, 24x19 

July 2022. Oil on mylar, 24x19.

March 2022. Oil on panel, 14x11.

May 2022. Oil on wood panel. 36x20

August 2022. Oil on wood panel. 15.5x14

August 2022. Oil on wood panel. 15.5 x 14

August 2022. Oil on wood panel. 15.5x14

September 2022. Oil on wood panel. 15.5x14

To see my paintings prior to this shift in direction, visit my website:

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Why I draw : Artists and their sketchbooks

I make them to discover myself. 


I’ve always found the sketchbooks of artists engaging because of the sense of spontaneity present on their pages. Unfortunately, since most artists don’t share their sketchbooks publicly, there are relatively few opportunities to see them. While museums occasionally exhibit a modest selection of sketchbooks as part of major retrospectives, at best we see just a few pages from decades of notebooks. The best-known exception to that near total invisibility are the widely published sketchbooks of Leonard da Vinci, available both in print and online.  Additionally, it is now possible to see the complete sketchbooks (29 sketchbooks with 1045 drawings!!!) of Richard Diebenkorn here, and some Cezanne sketchbooks here.  The Tate Museum offers access to an online catalog with thousands of images from JMW Turner sketchbooks, drawings, and watercolors here. The 2011 Serra exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum included a vitrine with a whopping 25 sketchbooks, but unfortunately they cannot be viewed online at this time. 

In a previous post, I wrote about the role of notebook drawings in my studio practice. Working in notebooks gives me the freedom to make a mess, to work without rules, and provides a space in which my hand, rather than my head, takes the lead. Since I don’t remove any of the pages, the bound notebooks also become a sequenced ‘diary’ of visual notes.

Each page is a note to self, a gestural record of a moment in time.  


My curiosity about how other artists make use of their sketchbooks led me to reach out to a small group of artist friends with a series of questions.  With the exception of one or two who regularly post sketchbook pages on social media, I had no idea how often they worked in their sketchbooks, what purpose they served, or if they now relied on digital sketchbooks.  Ten artists very generously took the time to respond to my questions and share several images from their sketchbooks. Their responses are both thoughtful and engagingly candid. I had intended to limit this post to artists who work in ‘traditional’ sketchbooks, since the mark of the hand is particularly meaningful for me. Nonetheless, I have included an artist who by his own admission last worked in a bound sketchbook many decades ago, and also develops preliminary drawings digitally, rather than working with pencil and paper sketches  Finally, where I have briefly quoted from an artist's response, that artist's initials appear after the quote.

While there were several commonalities among the responses, also in evidence was the deeply personal nature of keeping a visual diary. For most, sketchbooks are for loosening up, serving as a platform for open-ended meanderings, where ‘anything goes’ (RA). However for one painter ‘they are where I scale up for the transfer to the much larger paintings’ (SB).  And for another, ‘sketches help me change direction in a painting so I can move forward’ (CS).

Just what goes onto the notebook pages varies from artist to artist. The sketchbooks are often strictly visual, but may also include notes on the drawings, quotations from readings, or observations about exhibits. Although some artists work exclusively in pen or pencil in their notebooks, others will switch off between charcoal, watercolor, or collage. 

What is apparent is that the use of sketchbooks frequently becomes ritualized. Most have an almost obsessive preference for a specific size and manufacturer that lasts for years. Some will use a different sketchbook to explore each type of media, while others will mix it up. For several artists, working in a sketchbook is a daily practice, but for others, it is a sporadic activity.  ‘Not all that often. A sudden burst of activity, especially while out of my studio and home.’ (KS).

What follows below are edited selections from each artist’s response to my questions.


I love seeing people's sketchbooks! 

The voice is often different from the 'real' work - 

it doesn't have its shoes on.   



Describe the purpose of your sketchbooks: 
Anything goes. Sometimes I draw just for the sensation of it. Sometimes I hit on something and fill the whole sketchbook with it. Basically it's free space I can occupy however I please at the moment.

Do you consider your sketchbooks private? 
Depends on the sketchbook -  ones that are just drawings aren't particularly private but those that are strewn with notes are a different story.

Are your sketchbooks the same size ? 
Around 8x10. I'm particular about the feel of the paper and how it takes ink: cheap paper is best, newsprint is so soft and mellow.... I hate to draw on good thick paper that seems to beg for some formality, some intention, that seems to require that the drawing be 'good'.

Are your sketchbooks exclusively a visual journal or do you also write notes?
Notes also but not always. I'm also fond of crossing out notes and turning the crossings-out into a drawing...



In the sketchbook, I work through many ideas, usually by constantly erasing and redrawing until it arrives.




Describe the purpose of your sketchbooks:   
For me the sketchbook drawings are all about developing ideas and especially for exploring compositional possibilities. Also they are where I scale up for the transfer to the much larger paintings.

Do you look back to sketchbooks you did years ago?
Not that often, but once in a while I do. At times it can be inspiring and precipitate a renewal of an older, nearly forgotten series. Other times it can be a bit embarrassing.  

Are your sketchbooks exclusively a visual journal or do you also write notes?
…….  looking back on way older sketchbooks, I realize that I used to do a lot more writing; some pages had little to no drawing. But that’s not the case more recently, and I think the reason is that I do so much more writing elsewhere.



There is no judgment, they just exist.



Describe the purpose of your sketchbooks:

They are meditative, a daily exercise, and a part of who I am. I set intentions at times, such as looking at artwork I admire and then recreate this structure or line work, which opens me up to new pathways in how I see as well as how I use the tools and my hands…..  They are like automatic thoughts that have been shared.   

Are there connections between your sketchbooks and the rest of your studio practice?
I often don't realize the connection my sketchbooks have to my work. Sometimes I will look through an older sketchbook and find something almost identical to something more recently painted or drawn. 

How often do you work in your sketchbooks?
My sketchbooks are touched every day, even if only to revisit, sometimes revise, or actually dig right in and scribble, doodle, and sketch!  I have many going at the same time. 

What size are your sketchbooks and what media do you use?
I tend to like squares. They vary in size, from 5” x 5” to 12” x 12”.  I work in graphite, ink, charcoal, watermedia, collage, oil and cold wax….. it depends on the paper.


I’ve learned to not make sketchbooks/One Books “too precious” because when I do, they no longer offer me the freedom 

I seek from their pages.



Describe the purpose of your sketchbooks:
The primary purpose of my sketchbooks is to gather impressions.  The idea, the feeling, and the imitation are gathered without any censoring. In addition, I keep a project sketchbook.  When I make the decision to commit to an installation, it receives the honor of its own book.

Are there connections between your sketchbooks and the rest of your studio practice?
My studio practice is pretty defined, systematic and maintains a routine when I’m working on an installation. My sketchbook is the total opposite…thank goodness!

Do you consider your sketchbooks private or do you show them to other people?
In this age of revealing everything, I’ve mostly kept my sketchbooks private.  They’re a bit like a journal.

Do you look back to sketchbooks you did years ago? 
Oh yes!  There was a leak in my studio last year and I lost several of them due to water damage. It was utterly heartbreaking.

Is there another artist whose sketchbooks had an influence on your work? 
No, no particular artist.  I would share I do have a fascination with DaVinci’s notebooks, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” script notes, and the field books of explorers like Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, Margaret Fountaine and Colin Thubron.



I feel very vulnerable sharing my sketchbooks 

and I think that that is a good thing.



Describe the purpose of your sketchbooks:
My sketchbooks are a creative practice in and of themselves. I look at them as thinking books or idea books, which document the meanderings of my creative mind……. [they include] list of all kinds, quick sketches, doodles, preliminary drawings of larger ideas, and collections of things glued into the pages which document my activities like museum trips, art shows, trips to interesting places…. My sketchbooks serve as my portable Idea Wall.

How often do you work in your sketchbooks?
I date each page in the bottom left or right. I work hard to not let more than three days go by without filling a page. This has been my practice for the past 12 years.

Are all your sketchbooks the same size? 
All thirty of my sketchbooks are Moleskin 8x12 with thick drawing paper so that I can use water media and dry media as well as glue stick pieces of paper. I do have an additional twenty-five sketchbooks from my high school and college days. They are all random sizes and some are not fully complete.

Is there an artist whose sketchbooks had an influence on your work?
Austin Kleon’s  sketchbooks inspire me. His whole creative practice is writing and creating sketchbooks.



I learn things about myself, my mood, 

and how my hand is connected to my thoughts 

and heart at that moment.



Describe the purpose of your sketchbooks:
The purpose of the sketchbooks is multifold. I use sketchbooks to explore a particular medium. Also I love the format of a book to create small working sketches including the double pages and the consecutive pages.  What is interesting to me is the beginning, middle, and end, as in a book that one reads.. …… working in sketchbooks allows me to see what comes up organically without any predetermined notion of expectation.

Do you look back to sketchbooks you did years ago?
Oh yes. To remind me of what happened.

What media do you use in the sketchbooks?
Each sketchbook is usually devoted to one particular media. I enjoy the aspect of filling a sketchbook with a particular media I am exploring. Front to back. I’m obstinate about that.

Is there another artist whose sketchbooks had an influence on your work?
Yes. Cezanne watercolors, Van Gogh Drawings. Some of the early American artists, I think Whistler. And Delacroix.  Also my mother she filled many books with images, papers paraphernalia and sketches. They are a huge influence. She wanted us to see them.



I do like the freedom they give me to explore 

and make bad images!



Describe the purpose of your sketchbooks:
I don’t actually routinely work in sketchbooks. I'll pick one up once in a while when I need to plan new paintings or installations.  I use them mainly for little primitive sketches of new shapes that I might use for paintings later, basic compositional ideas for a series….. The notebooks are for externalizing visual thoughts I might have ……… I think that finally, my notebooks are really used for a kind of mental notation, rather than for serious drawing or research. They are for thinking, but certainly not finished work, nor maybe even of interest to anyone beside myself!

Do you look back to sketchbooks you did years ago?
I save them, as well as all my journals dating back to the 1980s. I don’t often look through old sketchbooks, but if I’m stuck, I pull them out. Sometimes I do look back through recent ones to see if I can mine something I may have forgotten about. It’s possible that I do more writing to myself than sketching! In the journals, I sometimes take notes from books I’m reading and want to remember. Those ideas have, at times, changed the way I see and think! I am quite visual, though, but the language-based thinking sometimes gives me an insight that becomes visual later on.  

Are your sketchbooks the same size? 
Different sizes, mainly : 4 x 6 inches, 6 x 8 inches. If people give me notebooks with fancy bindings and paper, I tend not to use them, because I find them intimidating!   I want them to be portable, not large sheets of paper. I usually put one or two small images on each page.



I make sketches to loosen up, not as a means to an end

 but as an end in itself.



Describe the purpose of your sketchbooks:
I keep sketchbooks but tend to rip out their pages when a drawing has something to do with a painting. I hang them up around the studio so I can see.  Once in a while, a sketch will serve as a beginning to a painting. Other times, sketches help me change direction in a painting so I can move forward. Sometimes, I sketch during the process of painting to record what is there temporarily, just before I cover it up, as a record which might direct me later.

Are all your sketchbooks the same size? 
The sketchbooks are usually between 8 and 16 inches and different sizes. They have to be small enough that they don’t turn into “works on paper” but big enough to see them and move around in them.

What media do you work with in your notebooks?
Sometimes the sketches have color, sometimes they are stark black and white. I might use pencil or charcoal or crayon or ink and watercolor with brushes.



With the arrival of Photoshop, nearly all of my preliminary drawings 

shifted to the computer.

Just four of countless variations on a theme, from 2018,
trying out different constants and variables.


The best version in this series of studies (which I have yet to paint)
happened by rotating the last variation (from the four above).  The roughed up edges from all 
cutting, pasting, and digital "noise" also suggest that it will work better with less precise edges.


Thoughts on Keeping a Digital Sketchbook
I think the last time I drew in a bound sketchbook was in college. As much as I love the idea of keeping a visual journal, it was always more natural for me to grab the nearest sheet of paper and make some thumbnail sketches when it was time to start a painting. 

With the arrival of Photoshop, however, nearly all of my preliminary drawings moved to the computer. On my desktop is a folder called “Studio"--a virtual work space. It includes digital sketches and numerous variations, like the ones shown here.

The thing about Photoshop that I find most useful is its ability to generate hundreds of alternatives in a very short time. Even so, I’m well aware that speed isn’t always a good thing. There are tiny gestations that only happen in those brief moments when we stop, glance up from the paper, and then continue, but my fingers are slow enough on the keyboard that things don’t slip by too quickly. 

Another use of Photoshop that’s been a huge help is photographing paintings in progress when they hit a snag, taking them back into the computer, and trying out different ways to move them forward. These often turn into sketches for new paintings and leave a useful track record of “states,” similar to printmaking, that I find useful to return to for new ideas.



They lay bare the process of my work, yet there is a freedom in the notebook that I don’t have in the studio. 



Describe the purpose of your sketchbooks:
My notebooks exist (primarily) outside of my studio, yet have a huge impact regarding formal possibilities, titles & or concepts…… I see them as visual, poetic & practical. In a museum, I’ll take notes, I’ll write down quotes from what I’m reading, I’ll sketch out forms. It’s just part of my day...

How often do you work in your sketchbooks?
Almost every day. It’s a very organic process- I might simply jot down a list of potential titles for paintings, the first paragraph of an essay, or a list of to-do’s & it morphs into a few drawings, or a poem...

Do you look back to sketchbooks you did years ago? 
I’m always looking back. My paintings usually take 1-2 years to make, whereas my notebook work is very spontaneous. I find ideas in those books of last year...

Is there another artist whose sketchbooks had an influence on your work? 
In terms of “practice”, the informal drawings of Richard Serra & Brice Marden laid out a path.


A few more sketchbook pages...... 

RICHARD DIEBENKORN    Page from Sketchbook 4



The notebooks ground people's perception of the work and it gives them an experience of who is this person making this work..... What does this guy do when he is in the world, in his daily life?