Seeking “the Zone”

December 1st, 2016

The wonderful contemporary artist Quang Ho opened my eyes recently to what he terms an artist’s three levels of seeing.  If I understand him correctly, the first is based on our beliefs of accepted characteristics of our subjects (“A face has eyes, nose, mouth, and ears; an apple is red”).  This is exemplified in, but not limited to, a child’s early drawings, in which, though proportionately skewed, with simplistically shaped features, the subject is still provided the key formulaic elements.  Although these “truths” are incomplete and therefore often inaccurate for depicting specific subjects, this level is identifiable by our fear of diverging from our understanding and belief of “what is.” Because of this, we paint the surface characteristics we have come to accept, without looking for a greater, more specific truth.

In the second level we see variations from our original assumptions.  We base our revised assumptions on informed observations, which are interpreted by our understanding of artistic “rules” and our perceptions of natural laws.  (“Atmospheric perspective dictates that colors become cooler and lighter as they recede.”)  These observations and perceptions may or may not be complete or accurate for all situations.  But they allow us to make certain judgments that may break away from the original mode.  We actively seek out differences and compare our observations against what we have been taught to expect.  Yet at this second level, even with thorough technical mastery of the medium, we often still rely on, and stubbornly cling to, our revised understanding of “what is.”

The third level transcends this to the point of our slipping “into the Zone,” being able to imagine the whole of a composition before its execution, visualizing possibilities beyond what our eyes perceive, and allowing an artistic concept or mood to transcend the subject.  At this level the artist is freed to either apply or ignore observational assumptions and perceptions of “what is” and experiences a fearless freedom to play, experiment, and vary from the literal.  This is where innovation lives, creativity thrives, and individual vision becomes apparent.

"Une Petite Fleur," copyright 2010 by Carol Mertz. Used by permission.

“Une Petite Fleur,”
copyright 2010 by Carol Mertz.
Used by permission.

Third-level seeing is what separates top-grade artists from the rest of the pack.  While often designed using characteristics and idioms of first level seeing, cartoon art, such as Une Petite Fleur (above) by Carol Mertz, often illustrates an artist’s inner vision by transcending the seeming simplicity of the drawn subjects to express a greater message. Simplification and use of the first-level idiom focuses on the message of the art and makes it easily understood by any reader/viewer.  In Une Petite Fleur, the simplicity of the line drawings, and the subtlety of differences between the weekly images, contribute greatly to the poignancy of the messages.

But I leave cartooning to my daughter.  Watercolor is the vehicle that moves me toward that third level of seeing.  Once in “the Zone” I don’t have to concentrate so hard on the mechanics.  Here I tend to lose track of time and conscious thought, and can let the freedom flow.  It isn’t an easy level to reach, requiring both considerable confidence and competence in the medium. And the changes come gradually.

I haven’t entirely or consistently achieved that third level of visualization in my representational painting.

Perhaps more than any other painting medium, well-executed watercolor is demanding and requires considerable pre-planning.  But this medium carries me along, begs me to play, and challenges me to find the answers to “how.”  Acknowledging the need to find “how” is humbling (perhaps because it suggests incomplete mastery), but it drives my continuing exploration and pursuit of understanding.  This realization reaffirms that it’s time for me to come back home to watercolor.

With increasing mastery will come increased confidence to step beyond the familiar to paint as only my mind can visualize.  Thorough mastery ensures greater freedom of expression, to reach for that ultimate level of seeing and of composing that inner visualization in an entirely different mode.  At this level, even representational work transcends a literal interpretation.  This is the level of artistic mastery I am striving for.

I hope you’ll stay with me as I pursue it through 2017.

Time for Tough Questions

November 15th, 2016

Last time, I wrote about surprising ourselves by reaching outside our usual parameters.  But sometimes it’s better to stay strictly within established boundaries.

When an artist is continually experimenting with media, ideas, and boundaries, the question can’t help but arise:  What about consistency?

What can an artist do to ensure that her work remains consistent?  What is it about her work that announces that it is hers, her style, whatever the medium or subject?  What contributes to individuality, to “style”?  And what should be avoided that might detract from a sense of consistency in an artist’s body of work?  If her work is varied, how can she narrow down to one aspect upon which she can build a career?  How can she identify where to focus her attention and energy?

These are questions I’ve been struggling with for several years, and the importance of it was brought home to me recently when a gallerist was giving me feedback about my work.

A review of past lessons learned, as well as additional research, have reinforced that realization and provided some insights about how to edit down both investigative inclinations and less successful “variations on a theme.”  The seemingly negative job of pruning out is a critical activity, but it isn’t the only task necessary.  Creating consistency also includes the positive element of conscious choice about specific areas to develop.

My goal for 2017 will be to identify which areas to focus on to develop a consistent, unified body of work from here on out.  Oh yes, I will continue to explore and experiment.  That’s how an artist’s work continues to evolve and mature.  But if I can control my investigative impulses, those pieces will represent only a small percentage of my overall creative output, while the core of my work should become stronger and more stylistically consistent when my focus is narrowed down and kept within specific constraints.

Just as shrubs bloom better when properly pruned because nutrients are rerouted to critical areas of the plant, creativity also blossoms more effectively when constraints are put in place that remove many distracting, and often conflicting, possibilities.  When limiting parameters are established, we must search farther, reach deeper, and become more innovative to find the answers we need within those constraints.  And we can reasonably expect that such increasingly intensive searching will bring greater depth and mastery to our work.  This is my goal for the coming year.

Extending Boundaries

November 1st, 2016

There are many ways for an artist to stretch her boundaries.  Some are by experimenting with other media or by tackling different subject matter or approaching work more as an abstraction than as representation.  Or it may be more literal by moving from the studio into “plein air” to paint from nature.  This month I’ve been literally stretching my boundaries in a several ways, by working on a larger canvas than the smaller sizes I’ve limited myself to in recent years, and by visualizing natural elements in abstract terms of line, flow, color, value patterns, and balance.

As I reviewed some photographs I’d taken as reference studies, and considered how they might be used, I began to play with some of the abstract ideas they suggested.  The result speaks for itself.

"Sun Catchers" (#161002), oil by Charlotte Mertz, 30" x 30" x 1.5"

“Sun Catchers” (#161002), oil by Charlotte Mertz, 30″ x 30″ x 1.5″

When we allow ideas to flow beyond the usual parameters, sometimes we can surprise ourselves.

Just for the Satisfaction

October 15th, 2016

Have you ever donated your time or work? You probably have, and if so, you will understand why I sometimes do, too.

On October 21, the Tampa Museum of Art will be hosting their 5th annual Five-by-Five Art Exhibition, presented by the Arts Council of Hillsborough County.  It will be open only from 8-11PM.  All artwork (limited to 5”x5”) is donated and exhibited anonymously, to be sold for $25 each.  And yes, the show will include two of my floral paintings—one in watercolor, one in oil, though I am not allowed to reveal which ones.  (Sorry to disappoint you:  “Angel’s Trumpet,” below, is not one of those included, though it is indicative of my style.)

Angel's Trumpet (#130405w), 3"x5" watercolor

Angel’s Trumpet (#130405w), 3″x5″ watercolor

A roster of participating artists and a preview of works available for sale during the event will be posted on FivebyFiveTampaBay.com before the event. The evening will also include live performances in a variety of disciplines.

Why might an artist choose to donate paintings anonymously that she could sell under her own signature to increase her name recognition?

For any of several reasons.

One is the satisfaction of sharing her work with buyers who appreciate it for what it is rather than buying on the basis of her name.  (Artists’ names will be revealed only after the artwork is purchased.)

Another is the satisfaction of supporting others’ artistic endeavors through sales—in this case, the Arts Council of Hillsborough County (Florida), to help underwrite workshops and grants.  $10 admission fees will also help support the Tampa Museum of Art.

I have frequently benefited from the generosity of others; I like being able to take the opportunity to give back.  If you’re in the Tampa area on Friday, October 21, I hope you’ll stop by the Tampa Museum of Art to peruse the variety of works available.

For the Love of Art

October 1st, 2016

In the past several weeks I’ve been exploring the question of “success.”  What do I really want?  What is my ultimate purpose?  I’ve repeatedly been advised to discover my own definition of success rather than accepting the assumption that it’s the same as other artists’.  I was surprised, as I dug deeper, to realize that my definition of success includes a sense of joy and satisfaction that has little to do with sales or financial gain.

Certainly sales and income are both inducements to continue and a means to support my pursuit of painting.  But I find greater joy and satisfaction in teaching, mentoring, and sharing my love of art and understanding of artistic principles with others who want to learn.

I enjoy teaching others painting skills and artistic appreciation.  Totally aside from my own drive to continually improve, the act of teaching motivates me to continue striving to hone my skills and to achieve greater understanding of artistic principles.

This blog and my monthly newsletter also provide outreach arms to those of you with whom I may have no other personal contact.  They also remind me to work regularly enough to identify and develop topics of potential interest to my readers.  (Though if any of you would like to suggest a topic, I’m open to that, as well.)

Teaching in-person classes helps me to establish clear goals not only for student learning but also for my own studies, since it requires that I stay well ahead of most of my students and at the very least remain on a conversant par with the most advanced of them.  By providing deadlines of scheduled class meeting times during “high season” in our largely seasonal community, teaching also ensures that I work consistently without slacking off, even when I may be tempted to postpone studio work to socialize in other ways.  Despite spending so much time in my studio, by teaching I also have the opportunity to get to know artistically inclined neighbors, both old and new, with whom I might not otherwise have crossed paths.

So, to me, success means finding joy and satisfaction in teaching, mentoring, and encouraging other artists while continuing to improve my own skills.  Pricing of both my classes and my artwork is more to establish a sense of value and respect for myself and my art than to earn an income.

Do you find this surprising?  Fair or not, the value of both art and services are usually perceived by the general public on a financial basis.  Students who do not need to pay for classes tend to attend class irregularly, granting higher priority to other interests and momentary whims, whereas those who have paid for classes are more inclined to attend regularly, apply themselves more assiduously, and express greater respect and attention to the instructor and the course content.

Similarly, artwork that is given or sold at unrealistically low prices garners less respect or appreciation than work that has been priced to reflect the artist’s skill level in comparison to that of other artists of similar experience or achievement.  So sales both help to cover incurred expenses and provide positive assurance to others of the intrinsic value of my artwork, while helping to establish my credentials for potential students.

Of course I like to be paid for my work.  Who wouldn’t welcome this kind of positive feedback and encouragement?  Sales that support my work are lovely, but they are only a secondary goal.  My sense of real success is much more closely related to my pleasure in helping others find satisfaction in their own art, as I have found satisfaction in mine.