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!


Work Stations – Studio Smart

Don’t be an aspiring painter, be a painter. Be an artist, not becoming an artist, not learning how to be an artist.  Claim it!

You are all in, and then we artists must all produce art work. Here is a really important tip:

For artists, the studio can be thought of in terms of work stations. Each one always ready and tooled for a specific task. Even if you only have one drawing board on one desk, with one drawer and one paint brush.

Doing the art of your choice is a state of “being there” bliss. Yes, we must all still be productive, even if it is a hobby.  Even things like casual doodling should not use time to find tools and materials; doodling should not be dwadeling, having to look for stuff in different places because we are disorganized.  We should be able to just doodle, with tools at the ready, supplies there, and a place for the doodle “art” to land when finished.

It’s not about being super organized, or even efficient.  It’s about being effective in using the time for rendering your art. There are times when my studio sits idle for weeks or months and collects junk but none the less is ready, because it is set up in work stations.  Even when filled with boxes headed to storage, I can cut, paint, draw, glue, fix, create, not necessarily efficiently, but effectively.  Note: I do try and keep it clean though, and usually do!

Here is what a work station is:  First and foremost, no preparation should be needed to use it; not even clean up – that should happen after you finish your last piece you did.  The work space should always be artist-ready!

It is not size, but the assembly of right tools and materials for one specific task or skill.

A surface to work on, a light to work by.  Materials, tools and supplies within ready reach to use.  A place to put the finished work that is other than the work table.

Simple enough, right? Example: If you watercolor, your main area is set to do that.  Paint, water, paper, tape, rags, tools, supplies, anything that you include in a complete watercolor work session, is right there.

Even when you write or sketch or do other work in that space, it is “set” for watercolor.  If you’re sketching, the supplies and tools should be adjacent to that area in drawers, or containers.

If you paint in oil, set that work station in oil painting readiness, and if you choose to watercolor there also, set it also in watercolor readiness.

Don’t put all your supplies in one place, your tools in another place, and your materials in another place. Not in cabinets you have to go to, not in drawers over against a wall, but “there,” right there at the work station.

If you use one space to do several different skills, then you must re-set or mix your work station.  Your work “boxes” or “drawers” should contain everything needed to reset the “station.”  That is a very common situation, but if you are lucky enough to have several work stations in one room, one for drawing, one for painting, one for layout, a space for photography or whatever you do, then each one is set with its own tools and materials.  Pencils at every station, erasers, knives, brushes, pens, etc.  Duplicate or triplicate tools is both smart and useful.  It is not expensive.

I paint, and draw, and silversmith, paper sculpt, work in glass and mixed media, acrylic, photograph, computer render, copy and file, etc.  In my studio space, I have a dedicated surface for each and a common place for the unusual (fixing grand-daughter dolls, or broken stuff).  I don’t have a large studio – 18’X26’, that is about equal to a couple of medium bedrooms.

My drawing board is always render ready. The larger layout board is always standing by. The easel is canvas ready for painting or drawing within moments of inspiration striking.  Each area with its own set of tools and supplies.

The computer work area is adjacent to my smaller drafting table and that is adjacent to my colored pencil and felt tip pens with both flat and tilted drawing surfaces, ink and fine point graphite all within the same seated area.  One seat with four work stations within reach and without having to get up.  The thing that takes time is clean up and pre-prep of canvas or stretching paper and such.  Those things are table tasks and are done on the “big” table which has its own knives, pliers, pencils, cutting mat.  Glues, and a drawer full of small items, such as: tacks, string, wire, staples, hole punches (3), pencil sharpeners (3), stacks of paper by the ream, shelves nearby hold chemicals and solutions.

The tip: assign a work space and condition to each various task, and keep it that way: “Work stations.”  Now when you go to do art, it is art you are doing, not prep or search or distraction, just do art.


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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It’s in the Cards

One of my favorite tools in the studio is old credit cards.

I prepare them by sanding one edge with 400 grit wet or dry sandpaper. ( you can use an emery board or fingernail file too). I sand them wet to keep any heat created by friction on the abrasive sanding paper from deforming the plastic. This smooths them and removes small burrs and irregularities along the working edge left over from their previous life. They have small nicks and rough spots, as well a some that I create using them. You can have a small bowl of water to set them in during a work session. This keeps them both clean and ready to touch up with the sanding paper.

I  use them as glue spreaders, or to lay down a smooth layer of gesso.

I use them to squeegee out a water-soaked paper.

Lay down oil paint background into a fresh canvas.

Clean off a palette knife.

Paint shield for straight edges.



It was a late evening, company had finally left and I returned to my studio work area.  Conversation had earlier turned to crafting, as it often does amongst some of our friends and family; unbeknown to myself, someone had rummaged through some of their things using my big work table for an overflow parking lot for their junk, looking for some old treasure or another.  I had not paid attention, though I had put up a good appearance of it, as I had been busy showing off my own junk to our company.  It is irritating, you know the feeling, especially when you are expecting to get a little something done, and find the time you have left will be used to undo some other person’s mess.

It wasn’t even ten seconds of huff and snit while moving small things, that a bowl of buttons became unrested at the moving of all these little treasures.

Perhaps forty or fifty buttons slipped out of a white glass bowl that is not usually a part of my things on my table.  Falling buttons, making that little clack and ticking noise that only a button makes.  Heavy buttons and light buttons quick ricky tickity click, on the table, and against each other, ta plinkity tic tic tic and then, silence.  Something seemed to await my response.

I was stunned, totally taken back.  Unexpected was the flood of emotions that overcame that silence and filled my ears.  It felt like a cotton white muffle blocking out all other noise in the room.  There on the table, were the buttons from my own childhood.  How could this be, how could I remember them, how did I even know they were the same ones?

But there they were: One large black glass button with silver stripes lay on top of many smaller ones.  I could smell my mother’s perfume as if she were in the room.

That button had sparked a memory from over 60 years ago.  Lifting the black button I sniffed it to see if it were really emitting any scent.  No, it was only in my memory, but why was it so clear I wondered?  I separated out a few with a nearby letter opener, thinking how that movement reminded me of the pharmacy and the way they separate out pills, healing medicine, as if counting gold.  A smaller rounded button with a scottish plaid pattern jolted me to remember – see my sister in a 50s style sweater, hand-knit and buttons searched for from the sparce stock of our little town’s five and dime; I had been with my mom as she looked for the final touch of a handmade gift for my sister.

This was one of the extra buttons from the card, and beyond my belief, there was a small shard of the card still single stitched to the button loop, the rest had been torn away. “We will only need six buttons and there will be two spare; I’ll stitch one into the inside corner for insurance, and the other we’ll stick in the button jar,” I heard her speak as if she were in the room.  She had later torn off a single button and placed it into a large mason jar.

I sat there holding that very button. It was a very powerful moment to be sure. There were more buttons on the table than I could muster the patience to entertain, but I knew that this find had just become mine.  My wife would protest, but these buttons were destined for the memory shelf.

As days passed and the buttons sat awaiting a new container, I was repeatedly amazed at the power of small memories. I have taken individual buttons and held them for my wife, or grown children and told entire stories about a button memory.  My band uniform buttons, my father’s hunting jacket, my brother’s pearl white shirt buttons that were removed and re-sewn on more than half a dozen shirts as they wore out, one by one.  “People would never think to do that these days,” I would remark, “but genuine mother of pearl buttons were a real dress up addition.”  There, one mother of pearl button lay in the bowl, waiting for a new shirt as if it were ready to serve all over again.

It was also surprising to see the many shapes that seemed so normal back then. Oval, square, triangle, tubular, tapered at both ends, and then the holes, two hole, four hole, single hole looped back.  Materials, my gosh, buttons have been made from every thinkable material it seems.  But I loved the leather buttons woven in a four braid and attached with a leather lace, now that was a cool button!  Yup, there were three small shirt buttons of leather there in the bowl.

I recalled the smooth indented glass button that I had rubbed in the sixth grade; I still remember sitting in class and rubbing it as I listened to the lessons.  I found myself explaining to my children that I had only a few shirts and that it was not uncommon to wear a favorite shirt more than once a week for the entire school season.

A week after the great button discovery, my daughter came to visit with her 3 year old son and my 4 month old granddaughter.  As I held the baby, she grabbed for my shirt button.  Of course, and which baby has not done this?  Buttons are one of the first attractions and memories of our children.  Why I had not seen this before I’m not sure, but now it seems so obvious; I should have been collecting and scripting button memories all along.

Some things can be called back up to memory but many, if not most things are lost, just as my granddaughter will not be able to hold onto fleeting nibbles on buttons. But her mother will, because I now see an opportunity  for a perfect memory gift.  Past, present, and future buttons captured and contained.  Stitched to the cuff of time with story threads, and recollections that can be shared by both the recipient of the gift and those who surround them in their life.

A little aboutbuttons-title_web:

Originally buttons and button-like objects were used as ornaments and have been found in the Indus Valley Civilization dating back to circa 2800–2600 BC, and in Bronze Age sites in China (circa 2000–1500 BC), and Ancient Rome.

Some buttons were actually seals, rather than fasteners.

Functional buttons (like we still use today) with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes appeared first in Germany in the 13th century. Soon they became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting garments in 13th- and 14th-century Europe.

Buttons can range from homemade wood to modern plastic, inexpensive buttons, or highly decorative and ornate buttons made of expensive and precious materials.

In some countries of our world, buttons are so highly revered, it is illegal to destroy a button.

They are historically an important part of the cultures of the West and Near-East, and are valued because of practical reasons, making them also valuable and lucrative.