I am not crazy.

Amanda Clyne, oil sketch on board, 8" x 10", 2013

Amanda Clyne, oil sketch on board, 8" x 10", 2013

“The only difference between an artist and a lunatic is, perhaps, that the artist has the restraint or courtesy to conceal the intensity of his obsession from all except those similarly afflicted.

— Osbert Sitwell

I am not crazy.  It is a mantra I repeat regularly to reassure myself.

I am not crazy. It is easier to believe some days more than others.

When I am not immersed in my own studio obsessions, I am obsessing about breaking free of my own singular voice. I imagine running away from all professional desires, responsibilities and expectations to adopt new eyes and hands, to paint every possible subject in every imaginable way.

One day I would run away to the French countryside and paint en plein air like Van Gogh or Monet.

Vincent Van Gogh

Claude Monet

The next day I'd lock myself in the studio to attempt painterly constructions like Sasha Pierce or Mark Grotjahn.

Sasha Pierce (detail)

Mark Grotjahn (detail)

Maybe I'd travel back to China to study the elegant simplicity of brush and ink, channeling my most ardent Brice Marden and Julie Mehretu.

Brice Marden

Julie Mehretu

Perhaps I'd catapult myself to Berlin to lose my mind in the chaotic ways of Jonathan Meese and Daniel Richter.

Jonathan Meese

Daniel Richter

After that, I might try to rehabilitate reason by immersing myself in the geometric journeys of Tomma Abts or Paul Klee.

Tomma Abts

Paul Klee

And that would just be the beginning. I want to paint it all. I want to try it ALL.

I don't want to copy these artists and their work, don't get me wrong. What I want is to adopt a thousand different mindsets, a million different sensibilities and see what it's like to experience the world in each manner of re-making. I want to see more and more of the world through an endless stream of wondrous and alien eyes. But I don't want to just look. I want to touch and make and think and process all these perspectives through the endless creation of endless kinds of art. I know it might sound crazy.

It is not that I have no vision of my own or no desire to hone it on my own terms. Of course I do. But I must confess to this other deep and insatiable curiosity. Expressing just one singular perspective seems woefully inadequate as a means of grappling with and reveling in the world around me. I am reminded of this quote by Marcel Proust:

"The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is..."

Indeed. How many lifetimes would I need to paint each one? Faced with the remains of this one short life, I have begun to feed this obsession quietly on my own. My regular studio practice continues, but patiently, privately, with work I will never show, I have begun to play -- play with new materials, new subjects, play for the pure joyous escape of temporarily abandoning my daily studio obsessions and finding the million other universes that lie within me. I'm sure these playful wanderings will feed my "work", but that is not their purpose. Their power lies in allowing me to roam, untethered to anything I have done before or anything I might do in the future. It reminds me to not get bogged down in the professional trappings of being an Artist, and to savor the solitary revelry of being an artist.

Alone Together

I have been thinking a lot lately about whether social networking is worth an artist’s time. Do curators ever read that Tweet about your day in the studio? Does the “art world” notice when you post a pithy comment on Facebook? Does anyone really care about all those images you love on Tumblr or Pinterest or Instagram etc etc etc? Does any of it really matter? Isn’t it more important to spend every precious moment on actually making work?

In a Toronto Star article last year, the issue was mildly debated between super-savvy tech artists like Alex McLeod and purely analogue artists like Vanessa Maltese. But the theme of the article was marketing, as if that were the only reason to have an online presence as an artist.

I write this as I continue to debate with myself about whether my online presence is distracting me from my studio practice, if I should just shut down my Twitter account and my Facebook page and even end my blog (which I haven’t been too attentive to anyway, a common story among many well-intentioned bloggers). Would anyone really care? Would anyone even notice?

Author Jorge Luis Borges once remarked how the people who loved his work formed a community of “invisible friends”. 

One of my favorite quotes of all time is by the artist Agnes Martin: “I paint to make friends and hope to have as many as Mozart.” Although I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean Facebook friends, I wonder what she would have thought of these online forums that enable viewers and artist to connect not just through but also beyond the work of art itself. Would she have posted her beautiful writings on a blog? Would she have tweeted pictures of the sublime landscape that surrounded her secluded studio? I think she might have.

In Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts”, Cain remarks on how the seemingly extroverted and exhibitionist nature of the web was originally designed largely by introverts. Is the urge to make art similar to the urge to share our internal musings online?

There will always be the crude and uninteresting purpose for an online presence – to satisfy the cynical demands of building a brand or persona. It's boring, and when framed this way, I recoil, procrastinate and often remain silent. But when embraced as an opportunity to think aloud, to synthesize random or complex ideas, to reflect on the bombardment of images and information to which I subject myself, to delve deeper into why any of it really matters, I am rewarded with a clarity of thought and purpose that I never really have when I don’t make the effort to share it with others.

So for now, that’s my answer. Of course, it takes time to ruminate coherently -- time away from the studio, and time I will have to find and re-commit to. But maybe the studio does not offer all I have to learn. And maybe there are still some invisible friends out there who can relate to more than just my painting.

Kenny Dorham – “Alone Together”

Strange Happenings

I couldn't sleep last night. I tried drawing (something I haven't done, well, almost ever). I'm a painter, you see. Somehow it feels very different. Drawing is so linear, so direct, it's a language I speak with only in an awkward and usually incomprehensible accent. So in frustration I picked up my iPhone and began playing with the Brushes app. I had got the app awhile ago after being inspired by David Hockney's show at the ROM last year. But except for a couple quick sketches, I never really took to it -- until tonight, when I didn't feel like doing anything else and nothing else was working. There's something strangely addictive about painting with light from the tip of your finger. Who knows where it will lead. Today I'm spending the day in the painting studio and I have a feeling (optimism?) that more strange things may be on their way.

digital drawing, 2012

digital drawing, 2012

My Painting is an Introvert

Although I have my extroverted moments, I am by all accounts a pretty hardcore introvert. So I recently succumbed to all the publicity I was hearing about Susan Cain's new book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking" and from the first page, I couldn't put it down. 
"We live with a value system that I call the "Extrovert Ideal" - the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight. [...] Introversion -- along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness -- is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology." (Cain, p. 4)
Cain doesn't vilify the extrovert, but rather makes the case that introverts offer different strengths that are too often overlooked and undervalued. And I began to think how this introvert-extrovert paradigm may help to explain not just the struggles with how we introverted individuals may relate to the world, but also the struggles of so much introverted art that must contend with our cultural "bias against quiet".

If you put a celebratory Beatriz Milhazes next to a poetic Giorgio Morandi:
Beatriz Milhazes
Giorgio Morandi

or a visceral Gerhard Richter beside a meditative Agnes Martin,
Gerhard Richter
Agnes Martin
or an aggressive Kim Dorland across from a dreamy Kaye Donachie,
Kim Dorland
Kaye Donachie
the quiet introverts have a tough time competing for attention. Jonathan Lasker once wrote in his essay "Beauty in the Age of Road Kill":
“Contemporary culture is oriented toward sensation far more than it is toward beauty.  This is very much in keeping with the image of our world:  the texture of life is seldom beautiful, although it is usually sensational.  It is fast, loud and enervating...[...] We want a more direct and less onerous way to pleasure, which we hope to augment by increasing our sensations.”
But introversion is much more than beauty. Cain ascribes the following qualities to the introvert:
"reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned". The extrovert is "ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold and comfortable in the spotlight." (Cain, p. 269)

Lasker may be right that our culture is becoming so numb from such persistent over-stimulation that only more sensational or shocking displays can move us. But I don't believe this is inevitably or always true. The loudest voice is not always the most interesting or the most poignant. I firmly believe there remains an important place for gentler, quieter expressions of our contemporary experience. There are many of us whose sensibilities crave a more contemplative space, not just for repose but for reflection and revelation. I see my paintings becoming more introverted now, and I'm becoming emboldened by the possibilities in quietly subverting the Extrovert Ideal.

Type A: The Ambitious Artist

One day when I was a young university student in France, my classmate from England got into an argument with my professor about the meaning of the word "ambitieux" (easy translation = ambition). My professor insisted that in the French language, the term was unequivocally derogatory.  But my classmate refused to accept that it could be wholly negative in connotation; the professor must be wrong or biased. How could an entire culture condemn the notion of ambition altogether? 

I have never been shy about my ambitious nature. Since I was a little kid, I have embraced it wholeheartedly. I am undoubtedly a type A personality, and have always been an insatiable workaholic. For me, a "balanced" life has always seemed over-rated, an unnecessary and suffocating blend of unworthy compromise and self-imposed mediocrity. Would it not be more fulfilling and meaningful to strive to be the best at something important to you rather than to be merely content in a well-rounded life? A little hard-core, I admit. But throughout my life, I have been not-so-humbly guided by this desire to be the best or to at least be surrounded by the best with all the challenge, inspiration and motivation that comes with such company. Is there any wonder my dream was to live in New York city?

Satisfying my ambition was pretty straightforward during those years when I was in school and then climbing the corporate ladder. There was no doubt when success had been achieved. It was the straight A report card, the scholarships and awards. It was the fancy office, the hefty paycheque, the impressive job title, the prestigious employer. 

But now, as an artist only a couple of years out of school, my ambitious nature is struggling to be reconciled with my creative impulses. It's not that the art market doesn't offer it's own version of corporate success: get good gallery representation, sell work at increasingly higher prices to increasingly more important collectors, exhibit work outside your local market, and with any luck be granted awards from prestigious private and public competitions. By all these accounts, I haven't been doing too badly.

But those professional rewards really only serve to help me finance my practice and have my work seen. Not that I'm discounting the importance of this, but I am quickly realizing that in art, success is not so simple. The professional rewards that I have been working so hard to achieve have had no correlation to the confidence and satisfaction I have in the work itself. In fact sometimes, they are completely at odds with each other, when work that I am most proud of gets the least attention, while a piece that feels less me and less interesting becomes everyone's new favorite. When the art-making process is inherently full of so much self-doubt, it is too easy to welcome the reassuring validation of external rewards. Yet it is an insidious and dangerous response that can quickly lead you astray, down a path of turning your artwork into metaphorical widgets -- or on the flip side, of turning market rejection into a definitive pronouncement on the poverty of your ideas.

I can't kill that corporate type A side of my personality. I'm pretty sure I'm stuck with it. But perhaps the French are right. Perhaps ambition never leads to the most innovative, productive or meaningful outcomes, perhaps the underlying drive of ambition is just the empty pursuit of handshakes and hugs. So I am learning to hold its influence at bay and focus my drive on the pursuit of the goal that ultimately matters most to me -- to make the art that I feel speaks most powerfully to my own vision and sensibilities and to the great art that inspired me to become an artist in the first place. Money, market and resume, be damned.

Weld Art Collective

I am a new contributing member of the Weld Art Collective, a group of creative professionals interested in sharing the ins and outs of our different creative processes, and hopefully providing a little inspiration, information and support to other like-minded creative-types. Check it out -- I just posted my latest post on the blog this week: The Artist's Catch-22.

Resolution 2012

"At year’s end you should look back at your thoughts and opinions twelve months before and find them quaint. If not, you probably didn’t read or explore or work hard enough."
-- Chris Blattman

I want this year to bring a lot of change for me and my work, and this seems the perfect quote to launch this pursuit. Here are a few of the things I'm doing to get me started:
  •  Looking for ways to get out of Toronto for awhile. I'm currently in Europe withdrawal, but New York is never a bad idea, and I've even been thinking epic road trip too.
  • Working in other media. I particularly want to explore works on paper. I need to improve my drawing skills, and I'm dying to play around with inks and watercolors (could be wimpy, but I promise it won't be). Further experiments with photography are also on the horizon.
  • Finding inspiration in new sources. I've been pretty obsessed with the history of art this past year, and I'm ready to delve deeper into my interest in fashion as well as look for totally new sources of inspiration that I can't even imagine right now. Things could get crazy.
I'll return to this blog 12 months from now, and we'll see how far I've come.

De Kooning Debrief

I have no interest in writing a "review" of an exhibition I've seen. I'm not an art critic or art historian. My interest in seeing the works of other artists is as an artist myself. And as a painter, there are few artists that are more instructive or inspiring than Willem De Kooning.

Inspiration on Steroids

At the entrance to the exhibit was this portrait from 1943-44. I visited the show with my friend and fellow artist Nitasha McKnight, and as the two of us stood in front of this painting in awe unable to move, Nitasha said, "I get the feeling we are going to leave this show crying in pink." I think I already was. 

We were finally able to pry ourselves away from this portrait, but we found ourselves continually immobilized by almost every single painting. His complex, labored surfaces offer so much subtlety and depth, while the fluid drawn lines insert an intentionality and confidence that so elegantly evokes sexy, sensual forms. These forms are repeated throughout his oeuvre and begin to form a language that becomes evident as you patiently work your way through the exhibition. Of course De Kooning is known for his bold merging of figuration and abstraction, of figure and ground, but until I had the luxury of walking through the annals of his entire career in one day, I don't think I fully appreciated the continuities and linkages among his seemingly disparate bodies of work. But there they were, available for all to see if you could just spend enough time looking. And as we stalked our way through the different stages of his career, every leap seemed more understandable, more inspiring.

Half way through the show, Nitasha and I had to take a break. We had spent hours studying the first few rooms, and we hadn't even come to the Woman series yet. Our heads were ready to explode as we tried to memorize every stroke and sensation that lay before us in charcoal and paint, analyzing and grappling with each and every major and minor development we could glean. Our eyes were exhausted from having to accommodate the demands of his scrambled, anarchic but palpable spaces. And the endless array of marks and gestures, scrubbed surfaces and impastoed passages, frail glazes and fearless over-painting, we were consuming it all in a gluttonous visual feast. We needed some time to digest.

We went downstairs for a coffee and sat there for awhile in silence. Finally, we both confessed that the show was inspiring to the point of shaming. Our own practices suddenly looked timid and cautious. We had viewed barely one-half of the exhibition and yet we had seen enough breakthroughs for at least three careers. De Kooning was ambitious, brave, constantly pushing his ideas into new territory in ways that were risky and fearless, never harping on one idea for too long, incurably restless and rigorous in his pursuit. It is an incredibly inspiring - and humbling - model for an artist's career. Nitasha and I agreed, we will have to do better.

Hidden Gems

De Kooning's "Black Untitled", oil on canvas, 1948
For those of you who know me, you know that I am really interested in the genealogy of images, in the influence of past images on the making of new images. This painting ("Black Untitled") by De Kooning is not one of his more famous images, but I was completely smitten with it at the exhibition. When you first approach it, it looks like a strange process-based piece, a relatively inconsequential work that must have been a mere stepping stone toward the more iconic masterpieces like the black and white "Painting" from 1948. But this modest untitled work just wouldn't let me go, and the more I looked, the more I saw.

The photograph of the painting looks much more graphic that the real thing, of course. The painting has a ghostly quality that is eerily dramatic. The longer I looked, the more figural references I came to see, and the tension and angst it evoked brought other great black and white works to mind. Most obviously, it seemed to have a lot of similarities to Picasso's Guernica:

Picasso's "Guernica", 1937

And once I put De Kooning's work in the lineage of Guernica, it was impossible to not see the spectre of Goya's "Disasters of War" etchings (1810-1815).

Etchings by Goya from his "Disasters of War" series

Most of the visitors were only giving this modest De Kooning a cursory glance as they walked through the exhibit. And it certainly would never have been a painting that I would have paid that much attention to if I had only seen it in reproduction. But standing before the painted object, I was completely seduced. Offering it my time and contemplation, it more than rewarded my efforts. These were not painting of instant gratification. Thankfully, Nitasha and I had the time to revel in each work, and the rewards would grow exponentially as we continued our epic trek through De Kooning's career.

Die Hard

By the time Nitasha and I had worked our way through the Women series and later figurative works, our knees were beginning to buckle again. Feeling like exhausted prizefighters entering the ninth round of a boxing match against the world champion, we took a moment to breathe deeply, trying to reinvigorate ourselves. We had to shake off the latest visual onslaught so we could brace ourselves for the body blows that we were certain would come. And come they did.

In the next room, the paintings were hung so close together you could practically see the curators throwing up their hands in surrender, unable to edit even one of the brilliant works out of the tight line-up. But there were two paintings that captured our attention for the longest.

De Kooning, "Untitled", oil on canvas, 1977

 The first was "Untitled" from 1977, the watery blue painting with the red high-heeled shoe. In reproduction, it's hard to see what makes this painting so hypnotic. But in real life, it towers over you, the swaths of pale blue paint forming spaces that are positively pillowy, inviting you to dive in. The dark pthalo brushstrokes recede into delicate crevices, and the suggestions of surf, sand and sex is irresistable. As we walked around the room, I kept looking back at this painting, continually surprised by its visual depth and frothy surface. It wouldn't leave me alone.

The definitive punch that finally knocked us out was "Untitled III", also from 1977. Nitasha and I must have stood in front of this painting for almost half an hour, so long that we started to strategize ways we could pocket the 6 foot painting and run away with it forever.

De Kooning, "Untitled III", oil on canvas, 1977

Among the million and one things that we loved about it was the crazy color choices he had made and how perfectly they played together. We had been noting his color choices throughout the exhibit. I have always associated a particular pink with De Kooning (a juicy pink made from cadmium red light), but despite all of his well-known fleshy hues, throughout the exhibition I couldn't stop remarking on his use of yellow in particular. Any painter will tell you that yellow is a tough color to use well and with subtlety. It can easily be neutered into Easter egg pastels, or poisoned with too much complimentary purple. With the tiniest bit of red, it can succumb to the pressures of orange. Or in an attempt to dim its blinding brightness, it can quickly become fatally drained of its fragile vitality. But De Kooning uses yellow masterfully, unpredictably, never making it come off as staid or cliche, often making it the life-giving artery of the picture.

And don't get me started on his enlightened use of greens.

When we came upon "Untitled III", we just stood there in amazement. At first glance, it's just bloody gorgeous, but as you try to imagine the process of making the work, the subtle and bold choices of color become curiouser and curiouser. Admittedly, De Kooning has his muddy moments, but they always seem to be alleviated by an unusual and inspired remedy. One could look at this painting forever. I certainly tried.

We stared at this painting for as long as we could, hoping that if we just looked long enough, we could absorb his spirit and later replicate his genius in our own work. But overhwelmed and slightly dazed, we finally had to leave. Ever since, as if the ghost of De Kooning himself were whispering in my ear, I keep hearing a voice in my head repeating over and over: be more brave. Get back to the studio and be more brave.

Passion as Purpose

"...having passion is just understanding what your purpose in life is." 
-- Dan McLaughlin

I came across this video today about this guy Dan who quit his job to prove that one can master any skill if they put in the requisite time, ie. 10,000 hours.  I remember reading about this 10,000 hour milestone to mastery in Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers", and I remember finding the idea reassuring after I crazily quit my lucrative job as a lawyer to try to be an artist.  If I just put in the time, it must be possible.  10,000 hours?  Then here goes nothing.

Well, it appears this guy Dan is documenting every hour of his efforts to master golf in a project called "The Dan Plan".  Perhaps I should have had more foresight and documented "The Amanda Plan" back at the beginning when I first quit my job.  And isn't the progression of learning art more interesting than learning golf?  I'm just saying.  Anyway, I relate to his story a lot, and I hope that his hypothesis that anyone can do anything if they just put in the time is true (for him as well as for me).  Although I sense a few glitches in his theory (everything doesn't just boil down to skill, does it?).

At the end of this video, the interviewer asks Dan whether the passion required to be so driven and focused so as to spend 10,000 hours on one endeavor might just be genetic.  I love his response:  
"How do you prove whether or not someone is born with passion?  I mean is that an innate ability or something that's actually, just for some unknown reason, some people are born with passion and some people are just passionless?  I don't really agree with that.  I think that as long as anybody finds whatever it is in life that they really love then they'll become obsessed and they'll just want to do that and nothing will get in their way.  So, perhaps having passion is just understanding what your purpose in life is."

Palette Madness

The palette of 165 colors I mixed in my studio yesterday.

As you can see, I have a new background image on my blog (and on my Twitter page too).  I've been hating how boring all this white white white is, so I spent yesterday mixing a zillion colors and filling my palette with dollops of paint.  I started out with a less ambitious plan in mind, just wanting to mix a few interesting colors that I could photograph, but as I started to see all those perfect drops of pureed color accumulate on the palette, I just had to keep going until it was at over-capacity.  In the end, I mixed 165 colors (yes, that's right 165 -- 11 x 15 rows!!!), and I was adamant with myself that no two colors could be the same.  They were all mixed from a basic palette of about five blues, three reds, three yellows, two whites and one green, mixed and mixed and mixed for hours on end.  Needless to say, the last 60 colors or so were a little challenging to make identifiably unique, but trust me, I didn't cheat!!  A little OCD, I admit.  A weird obsessive tangent in my studio practice.  But it became like a fun, sadistic, creative game that I had to finish.  And lucky for me, I now have a palette stuffed with paint -- and several blank canvases await...

NOTE:  For all the painters out there, my basic palette consisted of the following:

Blues:  Cobalt, Ultramarine, Manganese, Cerulean, and Old Holland (and yes, that's a color by the brand of the same name).

Reds:  Quinacridone Rose, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red Light

Yellows:  Hansa Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow Light, Brilliant Yellow (another weird Old Holland brand color that I've recently started using)

Green:  Permanent Green Light (Graham brand)

White:  Zinc and Titanium