Category Archives: BLOG–One Page True Tales

Short stories from across eight decades.
All true stories

How a simple sentence can change the perspective on why we paint.

W.G.acrylic-trees_web  Acrylic on illustration board 8″x10″

Painted in the style of W.G. –  the artist in the story below.

There are an untold amount of sentences that can be spoken which stir the very soul of us all.

Many statements can be made into a sentence that makes a difference in our lives, change our lives forever more; once we hear it and understand it, internalize it into our own heart, we are never the same.

Here is a story of how my friend said one of the most important simple sentences about being an artist I have ever heard in my life.  Ever!

W.G. is now a friend of mine; even though he is 20 years my senior we had met briefly and worked only professionally when designing for Disney Imagineering during the EPCOT years.

W.G. had written and sold a screenplay for a bundle of money, the kind you can just about retire on.  His script got filmed and became a big Hollywood hit.  W.G. stopped working and slowly over a decade he used up the money being an artist and writing other works in hopes of a second hit.

So, after some years, he found a need to return to work about the time his friends were all retiring.  That is when I ran into him again as he was working on the same project as I; actually, he had thrown my name into the hiring hat.

We were both retained to work on a project for the Olympic Village in Korea.  The work was done in the L.A. area and W.G. lived there on the west coast while I live in the upper midwest.  So I was traveling out to L.A. and needing a place to stay for several months during the project. W.G. offered me a room for rent in his North Hollywood home, as he was now living alone because his family and most of his money had moved on to, well, that is another story.

We traveled to work together and spent many lunch and supper hours talking art and design.  We went to the harbors on photo missions to get material for painting ships and sail boats.  Looked into every art show that we could get to.  W.G. Introduced me to other artists; mostly older, mostly retired, mostly still struggling even after very successful years of work.

Each day was both different and the same. The work was always new and challenging, and W.G. had to drag himself through it.  He is gifted, talented beyond fairness, funny, a great writer, illustrator, and comic. But he had become lethargic.  Was this age?  No, he had more than enough energy when we went places.  He is overweight by twice, but I could hardly keep up.  He talked and joked and had a great time, until Monday.  I loved Monday because I loved the work.  He hated Monday and Tuesday and … and he, too, loved the work. It was a puzzle.

A good friend and mentor to W.G. was a fellow named Bill.  Bill was eighty when I first met him.  He had worked as an illustrator for all the great magazines in the 20s, 30s, and became a studio set designer in the 40s along with Herby Ryman of Disney fame!  We stopped once a week for Mexican food.  Bill had been doing this for two decades, mentoring and befriending my friend W.G., as W.G. was now doing to me; I was privileged to join them every week while I was out there.  Bill said, don’t come unless you bring a sketch book and use it.  Draw, draw, draw.  He did, and W.G. did and so I did, too. They were really, really, really good; I was learning.

W.G. would then grumble to Bill about work and having to work.  Bill would echo and grumble back.  He didn’t work any more, didn’t paint anymore, didn’t produce, but said he wished he would.  Not wished he could, he wished he would. They told compelling stories for hours, late into the evening, even though we had to work the next day.

One night, W.G. focused it clearly:  “I hate working for lesser talents, budget-driven projects and ego centric climbers.  A profession littered with a confused self-image, using high skills accumulated over a lifetime, leveraged at a greatly reduced value just to get a seat at the table and to produce low demand processed outcomes.  Just for the money, arrrg.  Each job less than the last.”

I felt both sad and frightened.  Frightened at perhaps seeing myself in a few decades.

Both W.G. and Bill saw my countenance fall; did I mention these were sensitive and caring people? Artists of the highest degree accomplished over a lifetime!

Bill said, “John, you don’t have to worry about this as long as you keep what you have now.”  Silence befell our dinner table.

I thought, “What do I have that these two don’t have?  Both have an entire work history in place; I have hardly started.  They both have references to die for, portfolios of museum worthy images.

They count as friends people I have only read about, like Maxfield Parish, Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney.  Both have illustrated for the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Fisk, and half a dozen others.  Bill has painted the portraits of at least two presidents.  I had only a couple small feathers and no hat to stick them in.  This was nearly thirty years ago; I was forty two and W.G. was sixty two then, and Bill was eighty. They had already worked through the end of the halcyon days of great artists and illustrators, before I was even born.

I offered up my opinion,  “W.G., you have a direct inroad to publishing another hit script, why don’t you just do that?  And Bill, you mentioned your work is still in demand, why wouldn’t that give you pleasure.  Why not just do that?”

“You’re both better than any of your competitors, young or old; this is work you can still do!  With your experience, why don’t you just go and get those jobs and solve the problems?  Why don’t you just do what you have to do and ….?”

Bill put up one finger to his lips…shhhh …, “John, If we had what you have, we would do that.  Tell him, W.G………………..”

Here it comes, that special sentence……

W.G. turned to me and said,  “It’s hard to go hunting when you have no one to bring the rabbits home to!”

It stunned me.  This artist/writer had summed up all of society in one sentence.

The sadness and withdrawal of being alone; they never did any of it for themselves, they did it for moms and dads, wives and kids and friends, loved ones and on and on.  When that is not there, what is? They could not do it for themselves, they knew this.  I have pondered the power of this ever since.  I have what they don’t,  I have someone to bring the rabbits home to.  They held that higher than all their talent and experience combined, and they knew how to lead me to find it. Mentoring is very powerful. It was a gift.

The most precious talent gift you can have, is to have and keep family and friends in your life.  Then after a long day of hunting. you have someone to bring the rabbits home to. The rest is just practice and pigment.



How to get a painting started (Part Three) 3 great ways to be more effective in the studio

3 Great ways to get a painting started.

(A three part posting)

Part 3 – Make critical choices.

You may think this is so obvious but most people never start this way. They just start.

The keys to getting an image going is simply to make choices about the work, to name what you are doing, pick a viewpoint to express it, and set up for success by getting all the choices made in all critical areas before starting.

Once you begin, most of the heavy lifting has been done and you are committed and confident.  Getting organized, applying decisions and taking risks may sound so simplistic, but they are the most important tasks in getting a painting or image started.  Just getting the choices made and acted on is over half the battle.

Start like this; Choose a style to portray your concept.  Loose or tight, traditional or experimental, expressive or photorealistic, modern or old or fantastical. Choose materials and mediums that best represent this particular piece. Dark, light, bright or subdued, opaque or transparent, brushed or transparent, etc.  Surround the work area with accumulated information and research that supports the concept you are rendering.  Sketches and value studies, too!

Decide the right size of the finished piece that best allows full expression of all elements; don’t go big just to be big or small to conserve resources.

Choose and locate the center of interest; don’t let accidental placement of any element ruin your work.  Every element is a choice that belongs.

Keep the idea clean and simple.

Choose only elements that support the overall concept you are working on to include in the image.  Don’t place favorite things in just to include them.

If you are painting horses, don’t put in locomotives unless it is a robbery. Add  what belongs and only choose elements that contribute.  Leave out things  that might be there in your research if they don’t contribute to the ideas or to picture balance.  Like roads or trees in a photo if they clutter up a picture.  If something is not fun to paint, consider choosing not to paint it.

Choose a direction for the light to be coming from and stick with it. The more defined this is, the better the image will be.

Choose a color pallet, and resist adding colors after you have started.  In my opinion, 5 To 9 colors is optimum.

Decide what goes where and why in a sketch; change the sketch if needed, work and rework it as necessary.  Do a value study if you are not sure of your composition – a color study if you want more confidence that it will work.  Stick with it once you start rendering.

Never think you have to follow any of the colors or shapes in your photo research, but pay attention to the shadow and values, looking for the consistency of patterns in the research, then alter it to suit yourself.

Choose to start!

Go render your world.


(Part two) How to get a painting started – 3 great ways to be more effective in the studio

3 Great ways to get a painting started.

(A three part posting)

Part 2 – Establish a viewpoint.

A viewpoint is two things.  One: how the viewer sees the image; and Two: how the image portrays your concept.

How do people understand how to view your idea?  You can also have a point of view embedded into the image such as perspective, but that is not the viewpoint of this discussion.

Are you painting to show how well you paint, or to say something, or to respond to your life experiences and your accumulated opinions?  Or maybe you just like to paint stuff.  Some folks paint flowers, some dogs, some events of the world and some paint the fantasies of all our dreams.  Whatever you paint it has a viewpoint, even an abstraction has to be abstracted from something.

Every piece of artwork needs to establish a definite point of view, both visually and emotionally.  Ask yourself:  how will this image tell the story, is it close up, far away, from the side or below?  Where is the horizon, where is the vanishing point, the perspective, or is there one?  Will you use color or texture or special effects to tell the story? Are we in the picture with the subject or outside looking in?  What is the object of the painting?

Will the viewer gain or see a specific opinion, an anticipation, or disgust, or sympathy for the subject?  Does your subject need to push the viewer in a direction, as in taking a different look at something?  Or they may have overlooked something; perhaps your painting is just to show beauty.

How is the art piece going to set in the world?  Is it emotional, or shocking, or nostalgic?  Is it a visual perspective or an environmental foggy wet, or desert dry viewpoint?  A bug’s eye view or a bird’s eye view, or a leader or a follower?  Is it everybody’s view or a special peek?

There are so many variations on this, and you can use many viewpoints in one picture, but the core idea needs one main viewpoint to focus on.

By establishing a conceptual and/or visual viewpoint you can get control of, and use of so many variables.

Start by thinking how someone will first see the image, and then how the image is rendered both in style and in choice of media, and then how the elements in the image are portrayed.  That can include perspective or graphic, or abstract or brush stroke style, etc., etc.

Here are 3 elements to establish:

1 – Establish what is being communicated;

2 – Establish what is being seen;

3 – Establish how it is being portrayed.

These 3 points may seem very simple but they are most often overlooked.

Now you have established a viewpoint:  we are seeing this idea in this way, and you are ready to put a view point into perspective.


How to get a painting started – 3 great ways to be more effective in the studio (Part One)

3 Great ways to get a painting started.

Part 1-Name it first  (A three part posting)

Over the years I have found that most all artists have a bit of difficulty getting work started; this applies to both young artists just getting going and to more experienced artists who want to produce more but haven’t built the habit of getting into the studio on a regular basis.  I have observed people taking literally years to get themselves going.  Excuses abound but the reality is that most often there was never any experience or training for the artist to be productive or effective.  Most artists I know, outside of commercial or professional artists, have no real process or pattern for getting a work going; they just start and kind of work forward.

Because of my own experiences in the art field, I have had to formulate a way to get work moving forward, and nowadays when that isn’t happening it is from procrastination, not from lack of knowing how.

Here are three great pointers that I use without even thinking about it. It just comes by habit now. I realized the other day that this is a very sharable process and I should develop it for a posting.

What is the idea behind the picture?

Why is this interesting; does the image carry an idea or concept?

Don’t paint it and then name it – name it and then paint it.

Most artists don’t want to specify what they are about to render, feeling it is restrictive.  I contend the real reason is because to name it is to be disappointed if it doesn’t match one’s own self promise.

If you don’t know what your painting will represent before you begin then it is an accidental painting.  Nothing wrong with that, but you can be assured that even though you possess great skills in rendering and can always “pull it off,” it may be an image of great visual attraction, (a success in and of its’ self), but it will have to have a second accident to be a success as a conceptual work of art having any real depth.

Perhaps that is not important while painting still life or landscape representational paintings, but it is the most important thing in painting “story” images.  Those that carry concept or emotion, or any social response, commentary or even chairacture, and cartooning.

Keeping in mind that most successful still life paintings do tell a story, (same with landscapes), and those are well planned out in the beginning.

All images are viewed alone; the artist is not there to explain, and if they had to, the painting is not successful.

If the picture becomes incidental, the viewer will respond in an incidental manner as well.  The smallest concept is paint-worthy and can carry meaning.  It doesn’t have to be earthshaking.

Example: An ice cream cone makes a great painted image, conjuring up taste and memories across a lifetime, yet is a simple image.  When thought of as a warm day and melting, (TITLE: THINK SLOW AND EAT FAST); as a birthday treat (TITLE: ALL MY FRIENDS LOVE ME!), ice cream on a date (TITLE: TWO SPOONING).  Can’t you see the idea by the name alone, and once rendered in your own style it becomes personal.

When you name the idea before you name the painting, then paint the image to match your idea, you can more easily modify the name of the painting after it is done and it will match what you rendered.  This brings your whole talent to the painting, you are free to use your skills to render rather than discover, and use your mind to discover while you render.  Because you have a direction to go, it is not an accidental painting.  Naming the idea first is one good way to start a painting.

I will post part two in two days!


Ruby comes to visit

Ruby-2_web Ruby is a famous pit bull service dog of great fame

Pat Bettendorf and Ruby the dog came to visit and get ready for a book signing event. We talked blogs till we were blue in the face.

Check out Pat and Rubys web site for really great stories and interesting images of this famous dog. Rubys tale I tell you this because Pat is thinking about joing the ranks of bloggers. As an author he has done the books in the trunk and promises of greater tomorrows. Today he sees the future for blogging, I think.

Pat and Ruby have 2 books currently out (Rubys tale and Rubys Road) and someday maybe a third. Pat self published for you out there doing this you know what that means.

Making a point

Sailing-point-to-point_web  Sailing point to point 8″x10″

Technical pen and ink on Bristol one ply paper

I have found doing small ink pictures of sail boats is really fun but time consuming. Doing them in pointillism (small dots) does give a different look, but It is very labor intense. The use of this technique is an artistic rendering choice more than a media selection for best way to render this image.  Many great pieces of art have been rendered in pointillism and in color as well. When in color the mixing is done in the human eye more than in the paint. For black and white the grey tones are mixed in the eye as well and that is where the artist must use their experience to create a tonal expression of the image. This image is not a total pure pointillism image, there are pen line passages, and total black field fills within it. At best it is a mixed technique with major pointillism passages.

Pointillism often seems to point to the artist work and skill more than the image developed. The only time pointillism really works is when you don’t notice that it is pointillism or don’t notice the artists hand in it until you get done looking at the image and then see that it is rendered this way.

I love doing pointillism, for a really successful image, the artist should disappear and the idea should emerge, when properly done the use of pointillism is fantastic. These images work better from a little distance.

Here are some great examples of pointillism

The Five most important lessons my art teacher shared with me . . .

My-first-painting My First Painting

8″x10″ Oil on canvas board, 1954

Heads up – this is a 2100 word posting (longer than my average). My editor suggested breaking it into five short postings, but I couldn’t figure how to make the story flow so I put up the whole thing.  I would appreciate any comments to the article, both about length and content, or if this type posting is worth your reading time.

1-Paint on purpose

She was old and frail and beautiful.  She was fussy and gentle, regal and talented.  Even though she was frail she was magnificently strong in being there.  I was eleven years old and barely 5 feet tall and she was only an inch taller; she assured me she used to be tall and I would be one day (I’m still waiting).  She was Mrs. R, my first and only real art instructor.

Born in the late 1800s, Mrs. R. was a picture out of a story book.  Simply magnificent.  Always fully dressed in “going to town” attire, always ready with a story of meaning, never wasting hers or my time with trivia, yet always aware of the smallest of life’s tiny elements.  Her father, an older father than normal, served in the first world war, died many decades ago, she informed me of this at our first meeting.  He had been an architect and with failing eyesight he would ask her to sit at his drawing board and read off the calculations to assure accuracy. She would say this as if it were his excuse to have her visit with him.  “Subtleties,” she would say, “Are what make a picture, a story, and a life worth observing.”

There she was, sitting by my side, checking my accuracies and telling me about this.  Of this and other things, she would mix the instruction on a palette of colors and words.  “To paint a picture is not so important as to see it, and if you don’t feel anything it is because you’re not seeing,” and to see it before you paint it.

“Rendering will always leave you disappointed because no one can paint as well as they perceive.”  I would ponder this for years. “To discover your painting as you go is for amateurs,” she would say, “Not that you shouldn’t lean into happy mistakes or events, but to paint on purpose and arrive at that, well, that is being an artist,  To paint and discover, that is being creative but cowardly,” she would say.  “It fools the viewer but not the great art spirit.”

I realize now that I would rather say “This is what I envisioned,” instead of “This is what I discovered,” and most of us will never tell you which is which.  She would say “Paint on purpose or don’t paint.”

My next question was about doodling, of which I am a lifelong super fan. “Oh, doodling is the best way to stay pure,” she would say. “That is how you get all that discovery stuff out of the way.”  So I doodle a lot, I just don’t over-claim it as a vision or insight; it is a discovery process. So Paint on Purpose!

2-Look from your heart

Mrs. R would tell this eleven year old, “LOOK, don’t copy, LOOK,” she imparted that to see is to understand.  Look and understand what you are seeing, trust that what you feel about it, that is what others will understand.  She made it clear that one must copy to learn, but do not learn to copy.  You must trace to find true edges, but you will have no edge of your own if you trace.

I don’t remember every exact word she spoke to me almost sixty years ago, but I remember her exact self; she painted it into my memory with truths and caring and patience and love.

My father owned a steam laundry, was not really a fan of art, loved sports and hunting and expected me to be like my older brother (captain-quarterback of the high school football team), and to walk in his shadow.  I was born an artist. He agreed only to let me have art lessons at age 11 if I paid for them myself.  Perhaps he thought that would be the end of it.

But every week, I would beg a ride with the laundry truck driver (Floyd), to Mrs. R’s neighborhood, five miles away.  My lessons were scheduled by his delivery route, so he would drop me off.  She would greet me warmly, and set me up on her three season porch, there to pay my five dollars a week earned from working in the laundry after school and weekends.  65 cents an hour was a fortune to an eleven year old and in those days it was not unusual for a child to be working.  Do the math, hour and a half after school and seven hours on Saturday: $9.45.  My previous agreement with my parents was to save half of what I earned for school clothes, roughly $4.75, so I always traded with my sister for a couple of her work hours.

So I was working or in school or doing homework and chores all the time, but I was getting art instructions from a real professional artist born in a different century, wow!  In those days, that was held in high regard, and some of my happiest days.  I felt like a young man.  After all these many years, those times are what taught me to “see.”  Not the light drenched vista in front of me, but that within it is a story, a vision others, too, will recognize as a part of their life, their delights, or struggles, and of such pictures are made.  It isn’t just looking out through your eyes, but looking out through your joy and pain and experiences, then knowing that by seeing others you have seen yourself, too.  Paint what your heart sees, and the eyes of others will recognize it on some level.  So look with your whole self, then paint!

3-Time is more important to a picture than paint

Even back then, as an elderly woman sitting by my side, Mrs. R would teach me art as she knew it.  The image is made of canvas, a grounding coat, and a pigment mixed in a medium and all that mixed with time. “See the russet brown at the very edge of the leaves; use burnt sienna, it is there to under-pin the ocher and the hansa yellow.  It is the sign of the mid season of fall.”

She was in the winter of her life; I would learn that the fall is made of summertime being pressed into a dessert to munch on until winter could unfold its real beauty.  I did not yet understand this as an eleven year old or much at all then, not of depth anyway, but something unseen had made me insist on art lessons, something made me retain most of what she was saying for later understanding.  She would say things like, “Stop rushing the painting, slow down, it is doing that is joy, not having done.”  I didn’t understand but knew I wanted this.

It is today that I ponder how useful all the instruction has been.  It is today that I think how patient she was, sitting there with all her experience waiting for me to make a useful brushstroke.  She was still observing, still composing, still tasting the dessert from her seasons of life.  Teaching an eleven year old the proper use of materials, the placement of concept into perspective, the impact of tiny implications in brushstrokes.  Time taken to understand materials, processes, and looking.  It is the act of engaging human spirit into individually filtered communications that the artist may choose to employ.  This takes time to render, this takes time to see.  She gave me this; it was worth more than I was paying for.  Now I know why she gave lessons, she was having her dessert.

Time taken to experience and recall, to know others who look upon images you may create, well they are also seeking deserts of the mind and spirit to munch on as they too await arriving beauty of their own seasons. Time must be taken to carefully create this response and let others belong to that feeling as well.

Use time to make art, use time to share what we learn, and to have the courage to put it out there.  Discovery of your true self can be seen in the simplest of images if you take time to put it there.  Paint pigment mixed with a medium and time will make art.  Don’t get in a hurry.

4-Your work is yours – if you really made it.

Mrs. R would not show me on my canvas what she meant with her instructions.  Other people did – they would grab my pencil or brush and demonstrate their thoughts on my work, but not Mrs. R.  I would beg her, “Show me what you mean.”  She would then paint some example on her own canvas, but never on mine; the example she would use never matched what I was trying to paint. “If I touch your work, when will you know that it is really yours?  Will you lie and say you painted it, how will that feel?”  She would say that whatever I painted, well that is what it is.

She would show examples of great color treatments, or how things might respond, how to use the slightest thing for the greatest effect, but never put her tools in my paint or on my canvas.  She said personal integrity is more important than success.  You will always be able to say “I painted that,” or “That was my idea.”

To this day I do not paint on someone’s canvas; I have taught and demonstrated on sketches and others’ drawings with tracing paper layed over, then removed, but how will they know when the drawing is theirs?  The sooner one discovers what is theirs, the sooner they improve.  Most of us can see after we have made a mistake, that we did, that is called learning.  Don’t copy and call it yours, don’t trace and say that it is yours and don’t let someone “improve” your work; it not only ruins your work, it destroys that secret inside that is really your trying to get out and be an artist.

This is not to say that inspiration cannot come from trying on styles and techniques or taking good examples and research to build good images. Photos, sketches by others, ideas of others can all inspire our own work, but unless we keep our integrity as clean as our painting surface, we will lose creative self respect, and that shows up in the images.

5-Art is currency.

Art has value, and over time it has more value.  Styles emerge, trends and fads and pop culture comes and goes, building a mountain of untold amounts of images.  My art teacher, Mrs. R, spoke to me almost 60 years ago, “Being an artist, doing art, and being lucky enough to have talent is currency.”

Most of us fall prey to being commercial; this out of necessity, as I have done.  We sell our work, we sell our time and talent in exchange for the currency of the realm. When Mrs. R talked about commercial art she said, “It comes and goes in passing through your life but, being an artist is timeless; what you make is currency – it is timeless, when you sell it, well, that is commerce.”

When you look upon a piece of real art, do you not know that it has something of substance that transcends time, language, nationality or opinion?  The contributions, participations, even the musings of multitudes of artists expressing themselves somehow coelesce into an ongoing conversation that is felt over time by everyone.  Does the bottom grain of sand in an anthill do more or less work than a grain on the top?  It is an anthill; as a collective pile the hill has a separate identity from each grain of sand.  To the ants, it is the whole world.  The artwork of our societies creates a mountain of work and understanding in the arts.  The images from long ago only stand out if they have been kept as a visible outer shell of the overall effort, but the inward hidden art or art near the bottom, done by the unknown obscure artists of long ago, helps support the mound of images, too.  Art is a collective human endeavor, and it is an individual performance.

The most important thing here is to understand that it is art and artists are currency, the act of “artisting” produces value.

Being an artist, doing art or having art is understood in every language, every nation and can be converted to the currency of any local society, because it is its own currency.  If people want to buy it from you, well that is commerce.  No fixed value, just the perception of currency that is worth more than the coin of the realm, an exchange of currencies so to speak.

Mrs.R. said, “Good art is never merchandise, it is always currency.”

We should always see ourself and our work as currency, not as product or labor.”


Related post


Number one tip for painting wires in landscapes

Black and White

A very fascinating tip in art, that affects almost every observation in nature, is this:

When illustrating wires such as telephone wires, or high power lines, paint them as very light or white when they are in front of something, such as a bunch of trees, or buildings, and paint them as very dark, almost black, when they are in front of the sky.

Why? Well next time you are out and about, take a look and that is exactly what you will see, especially when the sunlight is on the same side of the wires you are on and not behind the wires. Observe how they go from near black in the sky to bright white across the trees.

If you observe very, very closely, you can see that the wires are both, white light from the sky hits the tops of the wire, and shadow caused by the wire on itself makes a black underside.  In the sky you only notice this black because the white blends with the sky colors, and in front of dark objects the black blends in and you only notice the white.  Paint it that way and your work improves because you are seeing better.

Now at sunrise or sunset, have you ever noticed how the orange is very bright on wires and lines?  That is because the light is sideways to the wire (and to you as well), and so much more light is being reflected back to your eyes that it glows.  Look carefully and you will see the wires turning several shades of orange as the wires swoop down and up. Often you can hardly see any shadow on the wire, or even highlight, just orange or yellow!

Cylinder-like tree trunks, light poles, fence posts,etc. have a white line on both edges.  A large one on the sunny side, and a little one on the back. That is, because of the atmosphere, much of the natural light from the sun is bouncing off the air and lighting the back side of objects.  All objects have this effect, but the round or cylinders are the most noticeable because you can see around the corner (so to speak).

Grapes and oranges and pretty much all round things have lighted edges, even on the back shadow sides.  Sometimes it is so very faint, but it is there, as long as there is an atmosphere.  Sometimes in the very cold climes, this effect is very pronounced because the frozen crystals in the air bounce more light, but sometimes because the cold is so very cold, the moisture “freezes out,” making clean dry air, and the shadows are much more dramatically dark.

So to depict back light, always place a little light along the back dark edge.  I pay attention to the seasons and the time of day.  It is surprising how very different the same objects can bounce light with small changes, not to mention big ones.


© John Michael Cook

Oh Duluth

Oh, Duluth 
Acrylic on illustration board 15″x40″ 
An evening view of the city of Duluth, Minnesota.  

Can we really see?  All of us artists know (or should) that good painting is good seeing!  Looking at a moment framed in nature and also in man- made constructs.  That includes events and conditions and scenarios. We get taken away by our own thoughts in this and often overlook just what we are seeing and instead start thinking.  We see the inside of our own memories; interpretations of things, and that changes what is actually perceived out there.  Not that thinking is a bad thing, but not while seeing; just look, feel, then think.  After that, respond and remark on it in a painting, say something and think something and do something, share something, but look first.

Almost a decade ago I decided to do a series of paintings in and around Duluth, Minnesota.  I am still doing that.  It is worth mentioning how much one can experience walking around a city toting an easel, camera and paint box.  I did not expect to enjoy painting in front of people, and am much a recluse in such things, always thinking of myself as a “studio artist.”  I needed to try this, perhaps I am missing something, I thought. So I found my “floppy” hat and …

lakewalk-red-bldgs_web Boardwalk
Sepia Ink 8″x10″ on illustration board

What came as a first big surprise was that no one seemed to care, or notice very much.  The world is really busy with itself, or I was too busy with myself to realize that what I was doing really was only important to me.  I had been busy with my own personal fears and doubts about being out in public and having painting failures exposed with no studio to hide in.  At first, I found spots back out of the way or not well populated, but soon found myself drawn to places others wanted to be in also.  So, it soon became mostly comfortable to just set up and sketch, paint and write anywhere the muse struck.  When I became comfortable, the walk around world seemed to just vanish.  It seemed to send out a friendship signal that had not been there before.  Maybe body language, maybe the paint I get all over me, maybe just relaxing. And soon, friendly folks would stop and chat a bit, and all of a sudden the city looked different because of comments they might make. I was not sure if this new influence was a good or bad thing, but it was definitely a thing!

When this blog became more than just an Idea or a task off in the future, my whole intention was to get the Duluth collection posted. However, just like when I went out into the public to paint, I found fears in exposing my art online, and decided to learn how to post, make my mistakes and then slowly move into the building of an online gallery.

steeples-in-recession_webSteeples in Recession
Sepia Ink on 8″x10″ illustration board

Weather is a real challenge, more than self. (Of course, one must always have safety in mind, but that will be a different posting).

Then there was materials and techniques, of which are much easier in the studio.  But in the field, the choices to start with are the pencil, ink, water color, or colored pencils, and always if one can stand the mess, oils.  My favorite studio medium is oil, but my now favorite field medium is watercolor.  I started with graphite, does that say anything?

walk-bridge-fish_webBlue Walking Bridge
Graphite 8″x10″ on Illustration board

So now that I am developing the Duluth image section.  I will be making a place for it in the Gallery section, and post the images there.  Postings in general, art, fashion will continue here on the front page. Gallery updates as well!


A Bird by Any Other Name

I knew from the shape of the box that perhaps we had just received a new clock for our anniversary.  My daughter had given us a similar shaped box for my last birthday.  It was a special kind of clock, one she knew I would enjoy, a clock that chimes out a sound effect; the clock made the sound of a steam locomotive coming through a railroad crossing. It starts with the whistle, two long blasts and then the crossing bells start ringing dingaling-linging, then you hear cha-chug-cha-chug-cha-chug, the heavy sound old fashioned steam locomotives used to make, powering through the crossing.  Ah, but that is not all, it then goes ka-klack ka-klack ka-klack ka-klack for more than enough time to get the idea.  In all, the sound effects last for just over 30 seconds.  It’s quite audible, not at all understated – I mean it seems like it is really right there! Every hour on the hour, it offered a novelty that, well, surprised us and entertained guests, but not without comments such as, “How long do you think you can stand it?” or “I’ll bet you crack before I do!” We have heard it every hour on the hour, waiting for the living room noon express to pass.  Thirty seconds is a long time for a train to be in the living room, as our guests ask, “How long are you going to keep that thing on?”You have to love trains. I have always been a train fan, and my wife loves to sit and watch at crossings.  When the children were small, we went out of our way to watch trains at crossings, expressing great delight, hence I guess is the reason for the train clock gift. They just knew we would enjoy it and it would probably only need one set of batteries.  There is the responsibility to appreciate gifts given, no hurt feelings, show you like it by using it!That part must have worked because now on the table was a clock-shaped box, and just as we sat down to unwrap it, the one o’clock steam loco crossed the living room.  They (my daughter and son in law) smiled knowingly.  Sly little looks that confirmed my suspicions.  I wondered what sort this might be?  A clock with favorite explosions on the hour, or perhaps mating calls of gorillas in the rain forest, maybe sounds of a day at the drag races? Unwrapping it, I could see by just revealing the very corner of the box, sure clues that it was in fact a clock of some hourly surprise.  This one was aimed more at my wife – it was a clock of bird calls.  Sweet chirps and mellow chortles of songbirds.  There on the clock face are pictures of twelve song birds, and a light sensor so the birds will sleep after dark (unlike the midnight train which runs on time, as does the one AM and two AM express).


Batteries in, we had it hanging in no time.  The first hour proved too much with the train drowning out the tiny chirps of the chickadee, and we all agreed – we have to set one clock just a little different than the other.  We determined the train should be first so we could listen for the tiny, inoffensive new bird calls.

Every hour on the hour, after it is safe to cross the sound tracks, we begin jumping up and running over to see which bird makes which call, calling out, “That’s a Northern Cardinal,” or, “That was a Tufted Titmouse.”  Oh, such a big help in recognizing all the wonderful calls we hear outside our northern Minnesota rural home, and soon we would be able to amaze our friends with our expertise in at least twelve exotic bird calls.  I could just see myself, standing  in the forest saying to a friend, “Shh, listen!  Do you hear the White Throated Sparrow?” Looking so knowingly casual and a part of the whole earth.  It comes to mind I do need a new red plaid flannel shirt, too.

Weeks passed, the batteries came out of the locomotive and we still would run to the bird clock many times a day, gaining steadily in our bird call knowledge.  Except for that my wife pointed out the clock was a few minutes slow, the clock has been quite charming.

“I can reset it,” I said, and took it down, noticing for the first time a red button on the back from which you can depress and hear each call.  “Ah,” I mumbled as I pressed it and heard the now familiar call of the American Robin.  It was when I lifted my finger that I noticed the warning that if you press the button, the sequence is altered and you must completely reset the clock; a mere twenty minute process that proved difficult, in that the only call I was absolutely sure of was the Black-capped Chickadee (the bird on the eight o’clock spot, and as it was approaching 8 AM, I thought, “How lucky am I!”)

But at 8 o’clock, it was not the Black-capped Chickadee that sung to me, but the essence of Robin, or was that the House Wren???  It struck me that the only one I recognized for sure was not in the right spot, and whenever I had heard the little guy, I had not been watching the time. So, for several weeks, the birds may have been all jumbled!

I set my jaw and reset the clock; it would be eleven hours before I could be absolutely sure I got all the little birds back in the right order.  “Guess we will have to set an alarm for about seven forty-five,” I remarked.

All day, I ignored one bird call after another.  Every hour as I heard birds trying to call to me, “Come to the clock,” I couldn’t help hearing the now-silent train, still coming through my mind right on time.  I had insisted the light near the clock be left on so the birds in the clock would “know” to come.  At quarter till eight, I sat at the table sipping Red Rose tea, and waited in front of the clock with pencil and pad, just in case I needed to make notes.

Sure enough, at eight o’clock, the little song of the Black-capped Chickadee chirped-kadee kadee right on cue. We could relax and start learning all over.

I knew the rewards would be great; there would arise the opportunity for a payoff.  It came sooner than I thought.  As our daughter arrived the next morning for a visit, we greeted her as she got out of her car. Almost as if on cue, a familiar sound danced in from the forest.  With no hesitation, I called out its name “Aha, the four o’clock bird.”  My wife didn’t hesitate either to correct me and said, “No, that is the six o’clock bird.”  My daughter’s head tilted in that “huh” type tilt that says, “What has happened to my parents?”

She looked at us bewildered!  Then, right on cue, we heard, “Chirp-chirp-kakee-kadee-kadee.”We both shouted, “Black-capped Chickadee!”  “Huh?,” and my wife and I said in perfect unison, “The eight o’clock bird,“ and laughed, so proud we now had a handle on it.

I strongly encourage everyone to find an effects clock of your choice and give it to a friend or family member as it will greatly expand your relationship into new territory.

I have learned that there is much more to telling time than just knowing which bird it is, or if it is a quarter past the House Finch, but I’m still expecting a new red flannel shirt for my birthday.  I just hope none of the packages are ticking this time.



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