Sunday, November 14, 2010

To become a better artist?

I began this years teaching by asking my students what their goals were. A common response was "I want to become a better artist". Hmmmm. So, I have been given the arduous task of asking them to define what "better" means to them. Do they mean technically better? Drawing more accurately, seeing more accurately, finding color notes better? What do they believe getting better will achieve? More sales? Respect from other artists? Personal joy? All of the above? Unfortunately, the sad truth is, the better we become as artists, the more critical we become and the more it takes to wow us, so "better" is a goal that keeps on moving further and further away. I used to be able to go to an art show and come away inspired, now I often come away disappointed. It is hard to find anything of merit other than technical prowess and more of the same. The more of a connoisseur we become in anything, the harder it is to find things that satisfy our sophisticated palette. Think of wine and cheese. The same is true in art. The more I know about painting, the more I want to see artists find new ways of solving old problems. As a painting teacher, I feel I am not teaching them a craft that is to be proliferated redundantly, I want them to create work that comes from their individuality. Individuality often means non-conforming so it doesn't always translate into popularity as the majority of people will admire and praise the familiar.

One of my favorite authors on this subject is Peter London. In one of his books he cautions that anyone can be taught how to paint like Monet, stroke for stroke, but although the external result may look the same, the internal process is totally different. It is like jumping to the end of the story and only reading the last page. Every choice Monet made in refining his technique came from personal discovery. He didn't begin as an impressionist painter he evolved and discovered a new way of seeing that was uniquely his own. A way that was vehemently rejected by traditional art norms of the day.

So for me, becoming a "better" artist, is to become an artist that continues to search and remain open to the discoveries that are revealed along the way. "Better" doesn't guarantee "satisfied", to continue to grow, we must never be stalled by anyone's satisfaction, even our own!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Realism Revival

I recently gave a talk on Modernism at a local art association. This was a presentation that I prepared during graduate school and came from my struggle to figure out where I fit in to the mix of isms. I see my work as relatively representational, and at times I felt I was not "progressive" enough to fit into the contemporary art world. Sometimes my work was seen as "Nostalgic" and I soon learned that was a dirty word in the art world that quickly slid into the realm of sentimental, trite and at the worse, cliche. So, in order to better understand how representational art had gotten such a bad rap, I had to delve into the history books.

It was fascinating, and I realize that there is no easy answer to any of it. Basically, to long for the past and to create paintings that rekindle that longing is anti progressive. We have for some reason intrinsically locked art to science with the misbelief that one innovation supplants a previous discovery. Science revolts with new discoveries that discredits old facts, and art has been pulled into that same realm. Each new ism thinks they have the new definitive and all previous movements are old and decadent. Isn't this the way of so many things? Newer is better. We all want the coolest most innovative new car, but there will always be those that yearn for the classic or antique automobile. We want to be progressive, yet sometimes we long for a time when things were simpler. One is not better than the other, and yearning for something from the past doesn't have to be a weakness. But, during the 1850's being progressive and embracing technology was the only way to be, and anyone who refused to progress was seen to have inferior intellect. Now, doesn't this sound familiar? If you don't like abstract art, the natural assumption (by those that "know') is you just don't get it. And sometimes, I'll be the first to admit, this is absolutely true. But it isn't always the case!

So, what brings this to this blog today was a recent video I watched put together by Scott Burdick on "Beauty" (" ). There are many well known realist artist today that feel slighted by the unfair attention that modern art seems to get at the expense of realism. The museums in turn influence the collectors. I touched on this phenomenon in my talk, according to "modern thought" realism belongs in the past and the job of art is to reflect the society and culture we live in today. I am not saying I agree with this statement, but I can't deny that there may be some validity in it. However, I don't think it was right when the modern movement slammed realism, and conversely it isn't right for realism to slam modernism because denigrating one form to raise another isn't right period.

I have made a vow not to condemn what I don't understand just because I don't understand it. This can be extremely difficult when one is looking at some abstract art. Sometimes someone can explain the value of a painting to me that I don't initally respond to and my eyes are opened and see it in a new way or sometimes I still don't get it. But I now hold my tongue from immediately saying "bull---t"! If it provokes discussion and provides meaning in some way to someone, terrific. If I don't get it, or if I need to read a text to get it, so what? If it makes be ponder an issue in a new way, then perhaps that is more important or at least as valid as me passively beholding a realistic work of art as beautiful. Is the piece less valid because someone has taken the time to think about it and shares his commentary with me? Is it only art if I get it immediately in the way I would get a painting that is more traditionally beautiful? Is beautiful the only criteria for good or bad work? Lets not limit art in any way shape or form, there is room for it all!

Long live beauty, nostalgia and sentiment in representational art, because sometimes we need to be reminded of the past. Long live expression and angst and passion in abstraction, because sometimes we need to be shaken and re-evaluate where we are going. Sometimes a symbol, no matter how crudely painted, draws attention to something in a way that a technically masterful realistic painting doesn't and visa versa. One is not better than the other, just different, they serve different purposes and functions in the world. Do not close yourself off to either type of art or all the others in between. For to do so, would be to limit your experience of the amazing diversity there is.

Picasso was as academically skilled as any of the realists portrayed in the video by Scott, yet Picasso found traditional painting vocabulary limited him and found war and death too horrid to portray with beautiful strokes of paint. So he had to create his own vocabulary and a new world of expression through abstraction was opened. Why can't we just accept the fact, "different strokes for different folks?" and that different times sometime require different modes of expression. I agree, abstract art is not as easily accessible as realism, but art isn't always about the instant gratification gained through recognition of the subject matter. Sometimes art requires active contemplation and sometimes the only meaning to be garnered is our own reaction. That doesn't make one better or worse. This is as crazy an argument, and as big a waste of breath as tying to define who God is or why he does or does not exist. Perhaps something different to everyone and to say my way is better that your way is just a waste of everyones time. Enough of the hierarchy's!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

This blog post is different from the rest. I wanted a place to record this event. I recently had an exhibition at the Cotuit Center for the Arts in Cotuit MA that included this self portrait titled "Remember Me". Next to it was posted the following text:

I celebrated a milestone birthday this year, inviting reflection on where I’ve been and where I’m going. Different quotes about the passage of time and acquiring wisdom played through my mind. One was “The face you have at 50 is the face you deserve”. This spurred the idea that this might be a good time to do another self-portrait.

While working on this, I had time to contemplate the meaning of this quote as I spent hours studying the contours of my face. About halfway through the painting I came across a quote by Soren Kierkegaard, “We create ourselves by our choices”. There is a certain double entendre that wasn’t lost on me as I was physically creating an illusion of myself through my painting choices.

There is an ambiguity to the gesture of this piece and I am struck by the different ways people have chosen to interpret it. I have strived to capture subtle nuances of expression. However, the reality is, the viewer brings their own experience and will interpret the gesture based on their own response which reminds me that we can never really control the way others respond to us. We can only remain true to ourselves or be destined to spend out lives attempting to understand what others want or expect of us.

So, I would like to conduct a bit of a survey. I would very much like to know how you interpret this piece. I have given you clues but do not let that influence your response, which is not the point. How you respond says as much about your experience of life as it is about what I intended the painting to elicit. In fact, that is really all it is about.

If you would take the time to jot down your thoughts I would appreciate it. Either write them here or drop me an email at a later time. Those who leave me their contact information will receive both a summary of other responses as well as my initial intent.

Thank your for taking the time to contemplate this.

The number of responses I received from my little social experiment was overwhelming, 75 total. This is why it has taken me so long to follow up on this. Thanks so much to all of you that took the time to respond. I resisted the temptation to read through them first, as I wanted to express my experience with painting the portrait first. Then I read through them all and I will share some of those insights as promised. I have opted to post this on my blog to reach those that didn't leave an email, or left an illegible one. I believe every response is valid, and although I may not have intended what was interpreted, I cannot deny that there may be truth in the observations. Please feel free to forward this to anyone you feel would be interested.

I have always had a fascination with the idea of leaving something behind that would live on after me. I love old cross stitch samplers that often had the words “Remember Me” painstakingly stitched by some 10 year old girl long dead and forgotten, such irony. So this is where the title came from. But I believe the seeds of my inspiration to begin the portrait were sown when I visited a Rembrandt exhibit in CT last fall, entitled “Rembrandt’s People”. All those faces, looking so intently at the viewer, all that antiquity staring at me and the realization that all of those bright eyes have long ceased to shine and that this was all that was left of them. The Rembrandt’s also inspired my choice of color palette; I loved the way the faces and hands emerged from the darkness of their ambiguous bodies. The painted portrait reveals more than a photograph because it requires contemplation and is filtered through a human rather than a mechanical device. A portrait by Rembrandt manages to capture the aura of the person, their very essence and life force. To achieve this is rare, but this has been my attempt.
The hand, what is that about? There were so many interesting interpretations, but first what was I thinking? Well, after looking intently at myself in the mirror, it was actually a natural gesture to reach out to that reflection in the same way we instinctively reach out to touch something we are curious about. But upon further reflection, it also reaches tentatively from the past toward an unknown future. The painting says, “I remember being there, where you stand, I once stood.” If by some luck of fate this painting stays in tact as long as the Rembrandt’s, I will be long gone. There is also the realization that someone I know and love might look upon it when I am no longer alive, so the expression is a bit wistful – it longs to be on the other side and be re-connected. It asks you to “Remember Me”. It is that simple and complex.

Your reflections, which I have had to abbreviate and condense:

On the hand:

Feeling of connecting with people, as on the other side of a glass wall, no matter how hard we try to connect we have only ourselves.

Still feeling my way.

Hopeful searching.

A blessing.
The painting reminds me of the idea that a photograph steals a bit of the soul. The gesture is trying to prevent the painter from making the image so as to preserve the soul. Glossy surface is like someone trapped behind glass, but the face is serene, the soul can’t be robbed.

Wait a minute, I’m just shifting from drive to overdrive, come back in another 25 years!

At first I thought you were saying “keep your distance”, then I decided that you were pressing against and invisible wall of glass saying I’m not through or there yet, I’ll keep searching”.

A sightless woman, hesitant to move, hand in front searching for objects as she starts forth.

Stop worrying about what everyone else thinks and be true to you.

You are saying STOP. I am happy as I am … don’t let time move me.

This reminds me of Sarte’s “Being and Nothingness”. If we let others define our existence, we cannot truly exist as individuals and can never be free but prisoners of the interpretations of others. The artist is free to construct herself in this painting.

Stop, you have come close enough – I am only wiling to share so much of myself and the rest is off limits.

The hand seems to limit the approach of others. It means that she wants boundaries even though she enjoys interacting with others.

It makes me think you’ve raised your hand in a gesture of complete presence. Reaching out to absorb the “energy” that your reflection offers. Open and asking and accepting.

“I am stopping time here in the present. I am living in the moment”

“Do not come too close to me, back off”

“Hello” but at the same time “I can’t talk yet. Wait a second for the speaker to finish, and then we can talk ourselves.

Thought provoking. My first feeling was she wants to get out of this picture, but then your face looks very content and comfortable. But then I thought maybe there is always a piece of us that is striving to get out of our control place and change.

The hand feels as if you are pushing open a door.

Holding someone back, saying “enough”.
Looking out tentatively for something you needed… lost? The face says in answer – look. It also seems that you are wistfully saying “goodbye” to something.

The hand says stop the physical process of aging. I want long life but I want to look just like this from now on.

You are saying “ok, but enough already” It is the gesture of a mom!

You’re leaning on yourself in a way, putting all of your weight on the 5 tiny points of contact between self and reflection that are your fingertips.

I’d like some distance. I’ve earned it – let me have time to contemplate – what do I want to do with the next 50 years?

I think you are happy with yourself as you are at this point - but are still reaching forward – open for more.

“Leave me be with my thoughts” Are you a standoffish person? Are you a person that you can’t get close to? On further reflection – “making way – one step at a time – with feeling and confidence.

The arm is not up, and the hand is open – it could be reaching out to touch something or reaching into the unknown – questing gesture – in combination with the expression and overall relaxed feeling of the body, it could be a gesturing of peace or acceptance.

The hand gesture is an inherently spiritual one. The phrase “Balanced Stillness” comes to my mind; a person who is willing to look at life, and themselves, not merely to look, but also willing to SEE.

Go forth, create, continue to grow in ways as yet uncharted, unknown.

My first impression was of a reike healer offering healing with her hand.

Wait – don’t be too quick to judge.

What are you longing to touch?

To me you almost look sightless and are feeling your way.

Wait. What is it you say? I think I see but wait.

I see fingers meeting in a tentative exploration of communication, less formal than a handshake, less intimate than a hug.

You are here, it is now, but it is not now anymore.

I see an artist reaching out to the illusion, which is self. Wondering about her passage of time. Reflecting in the image of self. Maybe life is an illusion, or an infinite quest never ending.

You are about to step through an unknown but compelling place and time Your life experiences have enabled you to accept and be compelled to enter the new place/time.

You have chosen to create yourself to be optimistic, hopeful, yet understand the pain we all endure.

Reaching, yearning, hesitant, reflective, reluctant, eager, and yet… the power! Made me cry.

(a little comic relief) Must not sleep, must warn others.

You strike me as someone that wants to touch the world somehow, so I hope you get people to reach back.

The painting seems to be mirror vision – your right hand is touching it- so you can now feel this person – you are not afraid but there are questions. I can see it in the eyes – you almost want to smile but are not sure.

(more comic relief) Ice maiden with man hands.

Stop, I’m 50 and I don’t have to listen to your BS anymore! or I’m 50 and I’d like time to slow down as I have so much more to do or It’s okay, don’t worry, you’ll get through this.

Reach out and touch someone, connect. Be one with the universe. Realize unity with all creation.

Facial expression:
Calm, almost serene, comfortable with who you are.

Calm, curiousity, whatever comes will be of interest - but not so fast!

Her eyes seem to welcome others, but her smile is only somewhat inviting.

Friendly, thoughtful – you’re recognizing someone whom you want to see.

Proud, affirming and excited about the future.

I see a depth of emotion in your eyes, wistfulness, sadness, wisdom gleaned through the years of experience

Expression of wanting something, beseeching, searching.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Probing the familiar

There is a certain thrill that comes from painting outside. I understand the thrill. The quest for the perfect subject matter to inspire and motivate, the ever-changing light and atmosphere, and let’s not forget the bugs. I remember my own personal journey. My feeble attempts to match the colors I perceived, to be the noble scribe recording nature exactly as it presented itself. But, I also clearly remember the first time I was able to use an on site scene or photograph as only a means of departure, the freedom I felt when I realized I could compose and move things about for reasons beyond imitation and representation. The day when I had mastered color enough to actually create atmosphere and light of my own desire, no longer a slave to the scene before me, I was now moving forms through space by the shift of a value or temperature.

I am pondering this transition today, because I just had a show of my newest work. I am well aware that there are people who do not understand what I am doing these days, those who miss my interpreted illustrations of familiar scenes. Why the preoccupation with these houses? Over and over, I reinvent their planes, colors and shapes. I am no longer poring through photographs and running to one new site after another searching for subject matter. Some may think I’ve just given up, settled on some familiar motif for the purpose of sales -- far from it. I have discovered that the deeper I am willing to prod the familiar, the more it reveals to me. It is difficult to push beyond the surface appearance of things to create something new. It is easier to divert by finding some new subject. But now, I have discovered that I keep finding new revelations in manipulating familiar shapes into new patterns. I witness the way the sun crosses the sky and causes a different shadow pattern I never noticed before and suddenly I have a whole new series to work on. It has become more about relationships, the relationship between the interior shapes of the structures and the exterior shape of the picture format. It is the subtle shift from one hue as it confronts another; it is the distillation of all that subject matter into simplicity of form. Less is more. How far can I take it? One color changes and all the rest must be altered. What if the sky is yellow-green this time? I have become the creator, and this is so much more thrilling than the role of imitator!

As an aside, I once thought that Milton Avery couldn’t draw. Pretty colors, interesting shapes, but obviously he couldn’t do anything else or surely he would. I mean, they are so simplistic…or are they? I discovered an academic drawing he did of a standing nude. Believe me, the man can render as well as DaVinci. The search for simplicity was intentional, and the more I learn about color, the more I realize his choices are not simple at all. So my new mantra is to not dismiss something simply because I do not currently understand it.

To view my recent show, please visit and click on the link to Mary L. Moquin.
The painting above is titled "Harmonic Intervals" 11 3/4 x 12 Painting resembles music in many ways; there is a structure and a rhythm. Finding the perfect balance between shape, color and atmosphere creates pictorial harmony. This painting is orchestrated in a way that every note plays an integral part in the harmony of the painting, similar to a small ensemble of voices each holding their part of the whole.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Discovery vs. Plan

To plan or not to plan, that is the question I’m pondering. I taught a workshop over the weekend I have titled “Three Steps to Stronger Painting”. I have given this workshop several times over the last 5 years. However, this is the first time I have given it since completing my MFA. When preparing, I considered how my thought process has evolved and reflected on how much of the content of the workshop was still relevant to my current process. The workshop is very structured and methodically explores the formal concepts needed to create strong paintings: composition, value, and how color translates into value. At this point in my life, these tools have become so intuitive that I realize I no longer see them as separate steps. It is like learning a particular dance. It is necessary to know the pattern of the steps to learn the dance, but we can only dance when we stop thinking about the individual steps! That doesn’t mean we should just ad lib across the floor when a waltz is played (although that is fine, just don’t claim you are waltzing). So, back to planning - thumbnail sketches, value studies, color charts; these are the scales the musician practices daily, the steps to the particular dance. The artistic allusions go on and on. The artist learns to orchestrate the picture plane. But, at some point in his career, he may realize how automatic it has become, and how easily he can turn out a beautifully controlled composition, complete with strong value patterns, and brilliant color correlations. At this point, it is time to relax the control. Trust in the years of planning and orchestrating, and now let the painting direct the course. The role of the artist now transforms, listening to the flow of music and recognizing the magical moments. The artist no longer controls every mark and movement, he watches, he discovers, he no longer imitates - he creates.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

What I used to know......

Once upon a time, I thought that art was something that was capable of being fully understood. I guess I thought it would be like learning to bake a cake. Given the raw ingredients and instructions on how to put it all together, I would be able to come up with a successful cake/painting. I have discovered that art tends to be a bit more elusive than this. In fact, the greatest lesson I have gained from years of study complete now with my Masters of Fine Arts in painting, is how much I really don't know. At one time this realization might have caused me great anxiety, and certainly at 18 who wants to be told that they will really never know all the answers. I am actually okay with realizing that I don't know everything there is to know about art, because to believe I know that would be to limit its potential. I believe that those with strong opinions have done just that, limited their options, and narrowed their vision for the security of feeling they have the answers. It is a bit like the 4 blind men trying to describe what an elephant looks like by the area they have touched. Art is like the elephant, larger than any of us can see totally with our limited human faculties. We are all striving, searching, developing, trying to
understand the part we have begun to grasp. But, I believe the danger comes when we think we have figured it out and go on to profess what we have discovered as the only truth. Then we close ourselves off to future discovery, then the different artistic groups clash, claiming it is about the color, value, line, no line, expression, observation, realism, abstraction, impressionism, expressionism etc., etc. I fall back on, the more I know, the less I know, the more I need to know, that is what keeps me honest as an artist. Emmerson said something like, speak your truth today and tomorrow speak your truth again even if it contradicts what you said yesterday, because "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". When you discover something new about art, especially when it contradicts your old beliefs, embrace it. Perhaps you have grasped a bit more of that elephant and what you have felt contradicts what you originally had surmised.
What an exciting opportunity for growth!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Overworking fears

Many artists speak to me of their fears of 'overworking' their paintings. Often I find this fear prevents them from pushing their paintings further for fear of ruining them in the process. I don't believe that overworking is necessarily a by product of working too long on a piece. It's working too long without a clear concept or direction. Or, let's put it this way, overworked pieces can still be revived, sort of like what I hope a vacation will do for me.
When at a loss, put the overworked painting aside. Somewhere that you can glance at it now and then. One day it will call you, when you're not so invested in it, and you'll know what it needs and you can either fix the problem right there and then or start a fresh painting right over the previous one if need be. Paintings painted over previous paintings are some of my best paintings, some of the history of the previous will show through adding a new dimension of beauty. The new marks will be fresh, because you are fresh and your vision is clearer. I have resuscitated many a painting this way. Stopping a work prematurely from fear of overworking to me is worse, it is playing it safe, where is the real 'creation' in that? Creation involves risk and new discoveries.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Musings on the relevance of demonstrations

Occasionally, students request a demonstration. They want to see how it is done. This request came up again the other day. It occurred to me, that in my undergraduate and graduate studies, no professor had ever given a demonstration per se. The thought never occurred to me to ask them to paint a picture and let me watch. I am currently teaching older adults, people that have often put their love of art on hold while they pursued other careers. Perhaps they want to catch up for lost time and find the quickest way to competency. I just don't know if that can be hastened in any way by watching someone else paint.
There are definitely basic building blocks of information, and we all learn from other artists. That is why I like teaching in a class environment. But I don't want to make it look like magic. It is hard work, and the fact that I can appear to do it easier isn't because I am some sort of wizard, it is because I have covered miles of canvas and made hundreds of mistakes. Each mistake I have made in the past helps inform the decision I make in the next stroke. It is a personal discovery and process. Art is about more than technique, and technique is about more than a tool box of tricks. In order to discover who we are as unique individuals with something personal to say with our art, we have to find our own way of ordering marks and colors.
So, I am happy to put on a show of how I make it all come together, but not for an instant do I think you should take the same approach because that would be a waste of who you are. My role as a teacher, is to help my students start to see the things in their paintings that help define that.