Hungry for feedback

July 15th, 2019

It’s mid-summer and time to get some feedback from my loyal readers about what you would like to see in my blogs in the coming months.

"Feeding the Gulls," by Charlotte Mertz (8"x10" watercolor, #190603w)

“Feeding the Gulls,” by Charlotte Mertz
(8″x10″ watercolor, #190603w)

Which blogs have you most enjoyed or benefitted from?  What would you like to see more of?  Now is your chance to speak up.  I’d love to hear it directly from you!

Copy and paste the following forms into the email form on my contact page to send your responses.  Use the subject line Blog Feedback.


Which categories do you most enjoy?

__ Travel

__ News

__ My way of seeing things

__ My way of doing it

__ Plein air

__ School of Oops


Which topics do you prefer?

__ Techniques and practices

__ Materials and equipment

__ Creative struggles

__ Works in the works

__ News from my studio

__ Other ___________


Which media are you most interested in reading about?


Is there anything else you would particularly like to see or read about?  Let me know in your email.


Please remember to use the subject line Blog Feedback.

Thanks!  I look forward to hearing from you!


Head knowledge vs. experiential knowledge

July 1st, 2019

We learn through both head knowledge and experiential knowledge.  But there’s a vast difference between them.  What are the benefits and limitations of each?  How can they be combined to optimize our understanding and appreciation of art?

We begin our lives with experiential learning—primarily through cause and effect.  When we cry we get attention; when we touch something hot it hurts.  We remember these lessons well.

As we get into school, a higher proportion of our learning is through head knowledge—being told something and being expected to remember and apply it.  Difficulties arise when we “learn” (by rote) information for which we have no experiential understanding to which we can relate it.  To a young child, what real difference is there among the dates 1492, 1776, and 2001?  They were all so long before a child was born that they seem to be only random numbers and therefore must be memorized along with their significance.  And what is their significance?  The child is too inexperienced yet to fully understand.  For this reason, pure head knowledge is more difficult to retain.

On the other hand, our life experiences can be so complex and overwhelming that we don’t know what specific lessons we should be looking for or learning from.  Have you ever been somewhere with someone who keeps saying, “Did you see that?  What do you think about that?” while you were looking at or thinking about something else entirely and have no idea to what they were referring?  Each of us notices those things to which we are already attuned but tend to overlook those things to which our minds don’t immediately relate.

This is why, when we have been shopping for a specific model of new car, for instance, we tend to notice similar models on the road more readily than before we began car shopping.  Our eyes become attuned to it and easily pick that model out of the mass of traffic around us.  Suddenly it may appear that “everyone” is driving that model!

But how does this apply to art?  Art is like the traffic, whizzing past us this way and that–every vehicle from bicycles to 18-wheelers, junkers to Maseratis.  Some feel comfortably familiar; others may seem like our “dream cars,” while others feel intimidating.  Yet each serves someone’s transportation needs.  Each of these vehicles needs certain elements to be effective.  If the engine doesn’t run or the bicycle chain disengages, the vehicles won’t get very far.  If an expensive car doesn’t garner the admiration the owner was hoping for, it may soon be replaced with a different model.  Similarly, if a piece of artwork fails to fulfill its purpose it will probably not gain much of a viewing audience.

But what is the key that makes the difference?  What should we be looking for?  This is where head knowledge comes into play.  By having been told what to look for, it’s easier for us to recognize the answers when we see them.

Perhaps the most important element of head knowledge to look for is the purpose.  What is the car/art trying to accomplish?  A simple, quick sketch is like a bicycle—minimal fuss, but it gets the artist /rider where it’s going.  A fancy, expensive gas-guzzler may be on the road more to declare the driver’s taste and wealth than to provide efficient transportation, just as an expensive piece of art may be chosen to display financial success in a corporation’s executive suite.  Like a Flower Child’s rusty, daisy-covered VW, another piece of art may express the artist’s whimsical sense of humor or political stance with no pretense of refinement.

What appeals to one person’s needs/taste/desires will not necessarily appeal to everyone else’s.  But understanding the elements that makes a vehicle – or artwork – appeal to you will help you recognize why one option will serve your purposes better than another.

Understanding the specifics of what appeals to you (as either an artist or a viewer) is a matter of experiential knowledge.  Recognizing the mechanics of design elements that fulfill a specific purpose is a matter of head knowledge.  We need to develop understanding in both areas to make the best possible choices, not only in appreciating and selecting artwork but in creating it.

To reinforce my own head knowledge, and to share with others some of what I have learned through experience, I include in my monthly newsletter, “Around and About,” a critique of one of my artworks to review how certain design elements or techniques may or may not have been successfully applied, and in what ways the composition might have been strengthened.  See the sidebar signup form to receive Charlotte’s newsletter, “Around and About.”

Why paint?

June 15th, 2019

The question arises periodically and eludes a simple answer.  “Why paint?”  It may be different for every artist, yet for many there are similarities.  So specifically, why do I paint?  Is it for money, prestige, appreciation, sense of accomplishment, self-satisfaction, recreation, …?  All of those elements may play into my reasoning to some degree—some more than others.  Let’s see if I can explain.

I love a sense of line, the flow and rhythms of fluid line, the gradual blending of colors, transitions from one form to another.  As a child, I recall studying a daffodil to observe how the petals’ curve transitioned into the cylindrical bell, and how a stem transitioned into a seed case and sepals.  My favorite colors then were not red and blue but turquoise and cerise and the curious change their blending rendered.  Even then I was asking questions:  If my skin is “pink,” then why did a “pink” crayon in the coloring book look more like sunburn?  I drew more pictures than took notes in my school notebooks.  I studied the illustrations in my story books, in chapter books, envied the fluency of C.W. Anderson’s and Wesley Dennis’s equine illustrations and began illustrating my own verses.  I drew horses, too.  But, for the sake of accuracy, my father recommended that I try observing real horses rather than drawing from my imagination.  It was good advice.  But I received little artistic guidance or instruction in school.  So I determined that I would become the teacher I had never had.  I would teach art.

In college, my classes taught me about teaching … but not about art.  I gave it up to become a writer and editor instead.  Decades later, my husband retired, and, on a whim, I took a beginning watercolor class.  It captured my imagination, and I determined to pursue it seriously.  You might say I fell in love with it.  The color flowed once again, and I haven’t stopped since.  The medium I choose to  work in now varies—I have worked with not only watercolor, but oils, acrylics, pastels, charcoal, graphite, and watercolor pencils, among others.  But the reason is the same.  I can’t NOT!

I still love a sense of line, the flow and rhythms of fluid line, and the gradual transitions between colors, forms, … and ideas.  And I still love to exchange knowledge with other people who have similar interests—whether they are my colleagues, students, teachers, or simply exploring a variety of possibilities and ideas.

I’m not one who needs continual praise or recognition, though sincere appreciation is, of course, appreciated.  And prestige is attractive, opening additional doors, but it isn’t my goal.  So it isn’t praise that drives me.

Neither am I one who seeks affirmation through financial return; nor do I need to support the family through my painting, though I do like to be able to bring in enough to more than cover my expenses.  So money doesn’t drive my painting.

So why do I paint?

Painting is enlightening.  It encourages me to see differently, more precisely, more deeply.  It helps me evaluate the whys and hows as well as the whats.

Painting keeps me real.  It humbles me as I enter a playing field with more highly developed technicians and alternative approaches, while the opportunity to guide novices reminds me of how far I’ve already come.

Painting challenges me.  I must identify a purpose, a concept to express and find the means to express it effectively.  It challenges me to continually strive for improvement, for accuracy, or for conciseness.  There are always questions to pose, problems to resolve, decisions to justify.

Painting brings a sense of order.  Like that of most of us, my daily life is fragmented—a few minutes at this task, an hour at that, meals to prepare, laundry to do, telephone calls, errands to run, …  Committing a block of time to painting focuses me, providing a restful continuity for part of my day.  I have time to think, to feel, to express myself visually, without interruption—or at least for extended periods with self-selected breaks.

So my motivation to paint appears to be in the challenge, the enlightenment it brings, and the re-creation and re-affirmation of my selfness.  If my work speaks to others as well, I’m blessed.

Scaling the heights

June 1st, 2019

As I began planning some studio paintings of our most recent trip to the western U.S., I was drawn repeatedly to a scene from Zion National Park, in Utah.  At the beginning of our riverside walk along the Virgin River, the sun and shadows had crept slowly across the canyon walls towering overhead.  Heavy snows over the past winter led to a heavier-than-normal runoff this spring, resulting in a fine-line waterfall over the precipice, further feeding the swelling river, and rendering the Narrows (a twisting, normally wadable section of the stream) impassable on foot.  So although we were unable to hike the Narrows on this trip, we were treated to this rare view of the falls.  I thought it was worth commemorating in paint.

Hoping to capture the early morning light on the majestic stone walls, my first effort was in oils. I realized how critical it would be to include figures within the composition:  Something was needed to provide a sense of scale to the scene.  Without including any figures in the image, the trees in the foreground might be assumed to be roughly the height of a person, which would minimize the apparent height of the canyon walls.  With the figures in place, however, the viewer realizes how comparatively tall the trees, in fact, are, which in turn provides a more accurate scale for the towering walls of the canyon.

"Springtime Fall, Zion National Park" by Charlotte Mertz, 12"x9" oil on panel.  190501

“Springtime Fall, Zion National Park” by Charlotte Mertz, 12″ x 9″ oil on panel

But despite this preplanning, for several reasons I still wasn’t entirely happy with the resulting composition.  So I rethought the concept and reconsidered how to more effectively express it, ultimately placing more emphasis on the towering height than on the sunlight’s influence on the stone.  This time I chose an elongated format in watercolor to emphasize the verticality of the scene.  Another technique I used was to emphasize the vertical fissures and de-emphasize many of the curving and horizontal cracks, except where they were needed to describe the broken character of the wall and the interrupted fall of water. Once again, it was critical to include figures in the foreground to provide a sense of scale.

"From the Heights," by Charlotte Mertz (12"x6" watercolor, #190502w)

“From the Heights,” by Charlotte Mertz
(12″x6″ watercolor, #190502w)

The resulting composition much more closely approximates the overwhelming sensations I experienced at the site.  Ironically, the sense of light improved in the second composition, as well, due primarily to my choice of a warmer dominant color to describe the hue of the sunlit stone.

Composition design – conscious or unconscious?

May 15th, 2019

When I show my students various master paintings to illustrate artistic principles and how they can be applied to enhance a composition, they often ask if the artist thought about all these principles before they began painting.

My answer is “yes and no.”

Most accomplished artists are well aware of the principles and how to apply them to enhance their visual concept for a composition.  But do they consciously plan how to use every one?  In some cases they do.  But to an even greater extent the principles may be applied intuitively rather than consciously … because it “feels right” to the artist.

Let’s back up a bit and look at the question from a different perspective.  The principles have been identified for a reason:  They work!  But which came first, the chicken or the egg, the principle or the application?

I believe the principles were identified because, originally, artists worked intuitively, positioning focal areas based on what was important, using color in ways that served a specific purpose, adjusting harmony to establish a mood, and so on, not because they had been taught to but because it was pleasing to their eye or served their aesthetic sense.  The commonality among the most pleasing works identified for subsequent generations of artists the principles that could be applied to create similarly pleasing or effective works.  So those principles were passed along to yet other artists so they wouldn’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” stumbling through so much of the process of trial and error themselves.

Trained artists today know how to consciously plan their compositions to most effectively express what they want their work to say, and they often spend a great deal of time working out many alternative approaches to the design, based on generally accepted artistic principles.  But those principles are not intended to create an image from scratch.  Instead, they merely refine and enhance the artist’s initial intuitive concept, guiding them in how to emphasize or de-emphasize certain elements to most effectively make their visual point.

So yes, some artists are very much aware of the principles and consciously use them to design a composition.  And no:  Other artists work intuitively, drawing primarily on their own aesthetic sense (usually based on the same aesthetics that are the basis for those principles) and what “feels right” to them, so are still applying many of those same principles but less consciously.

The former group is likely to have greater technical success because of their reliance on the principles, but may have more difficulty creatively if they become too insistent on following the “rules” too closely. The latter group may feel freer to paint creatively but is more likely to have inconsistent technical success because they may be overlooking potential enhancement opportunities or not recognizing some factor that actually weakens the design.

Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”  With purpose.

I expect that artists who do exactly that create the most consistently appealing work by consciously planning how to apply many of the principles as appropriate to convey their artistic vision while also allowing certain deviations for the sake of individual purpose and creativity.