Perfectly Off Balance


Small sailboat provides balance

When something is off balance, you notice right away: too much coriander in the curry, the picture hanging over the fireplace is crooked, or the volume in the left speaker is too low. You adjust and like fixing a wobbly table, you mentally stack sugar packets under a leg to set things right.

We learned to balance our seesaws, bicycles and check books but sometimes balance doesn’t have to mean equal. Look at the photograph and use your finger to cover the sailboat in the upper left corner. Without that tiny speck of white, the much more massive plants and flowers look off balance.

On a recent trip to the British Virgin Islands, I heard a surf instructor tell his student: “balance is not always gained by standing in the middle of the board.” Shortly later, someone handed me a Zen card with the words:

“The center is not always the point of balance”

And all of a sudden a lot of things made sense. Achieving balance does not require equal, opposite or symmetrical forces. Leverage can be used to balance the small with the large. Sometimes one cute habanero pepper can balance an entire pot of gumbo or a holiday weekend can balance a five day work week.

Equilibrium spans many disciplines but for art – shapes, colors and lines are arranged to produce a whole that is harmonious and pleasing. Talking about balance got Henri Matisse in big trouble when he said: “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” The critics banished him for creating “decorations” instead of serious artwork. Who would want some of those decorations now?

Sometimes we just have to step away from the middle to find our true balance. What do you think?


Drawn to Draw: Turn Seeing Into Something More Fascinating

Drawn to the Sun

Drawn to the Sun

Have you ever watched a seabird appear to change colors from white to aqua as it dives toward the ocean or turn to gold at sunset?  Of course the bird doesn’t change but the reflected light does. One way to appreciate life more fully is by learning “how” to look, since beauty and interesting effects of light are all around.

Most of us think “drawing is hard” and are never taught or motivated enough to move beyond stick figures. Many people don’t know that drawing is not an inborn ability but a skill that anyone can learn in a short time with a little practice. The simple exercises in Drawing on The Right Side of The Brain can give anyone enough skill with a pencil to increase his or her appreciation of the world.

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand,” taught the philosopher Xun Zi. 不闻不若闻之,闻之不若见之,见之不若知之,知之不若行之;学至于行之而止矣。

“Do to understand” is where drawing comes in – Drawing is just applied seeing. Try sketching a person’s face to reveal and observe features and expressions in ways you’ve never seen before. Try sketching a landscape to see details of the ground that are hidden from most people and really get to see the subtleties of clouds for the first time. Try to draw the view from your window at different times of day, or in various weather conditions.

Even if your drawing isn’t very good, you will begin to notice things differently.  These activities open the shades to a window that lets you see the world as an artist. With new appreciation for nuances  your seeing will be transformed into something more fascinating.


Shortcut to Success in Everything

Porter carrying supplies up mountain

going up?

It’s a six hour walk up a slippery wet trail – is this the best way to bring supplies to the top of the mountain? I asked why they didn’t use the 30 minute tram, at night when it is not being used by visitors, and my guide answered: it would put the porters out of work.  This provides a strong metaphor about efficiency and best practices.

Have you ever heard of an experienced golfer playing a round with the old clubs they first bought when they were learning the game?  Even while practicing at the driving range, they use their good clubs.

The easiest way to improve your golf game is not with hours of practice, but upgrading your equipment. The easiest way to improve your triathlon time is with the right running shoes, a faster bike, and a better designed swim suit. The right equipment helps to shed time from your finish– and makes you more competitive without extra practice.  What’s the best way to become a better photographer or painter?

A really good photographer or painter can probably produce something decent with the barest of equipment like a pinhole camera or a piece of calk. However, for most of us we are looking for any advantage we can find to improve our results. If you are standing in front of a once in a lifetime view, don’t you want to capture it with the best equipment. Clearly, the easiest way to improve your photos is to use a better lens. If you are spending the effort in learning to paint, the single easiest way to improve is to use better brushes, better paint, and better media. You can see it in any beginning watercolor class, hopefuls struggling with synthetic brushes, student grade paint and unsuitable paper – and with early failures, unfortunately, people give up. Sure upgrading always cost more, but calculate how much your time is worth, and consider how important your ideas are. Of course there is a time and a place for using scrap paper but if you are going to spend the time and energy to create, why hold yourself back. What’s worth doing is worth doing with the right tools. Of course good technique takes years of dedication but starting with inferior equipment makes it almost impossible to succeed. The best way to succeed in anything new is to first value your time and your ideas and start with the right tools and whatever you do, don’t be a porter.

– What do you think?


Too Much Pizza


Expanding pie

Do you remember hearing your teacher say “Eyes on your own paper” while taking a test?  Did your coach tell you “Don’t look” at your competitor during a sprint since it would slow you down?

Not looking around results in what I call the pizza parlor problem. It’s something you probably see all the time and goes like this: you look around town and realize that there is no place to get pizza. You calculate that the population can support this kind of restaurant, so you lay out some dough, develop a business plan, get the proper permits, lease a store, design a menu, and hire a staff all within a year. Then when you are ready to open, you notice that four others people had the same idea. The area has too much pizza and cannot support five restaurants so you are all in trouble.

In art class, your teacher said to walk around the room to see what everyone else is doing. Looking over your shoulder prevents replicating and is a way that good ideas are transferred. Painters, musicians and writers, are wise to seek out the best in their field who came and succeeded before them.  Looking can be a passive form of collaboration with some of the greatest minds and most talented people who ever lived where the best ideas can be borrowed and the best practices of others can be  incorporate with your own.  To be creative, start by  looking over the shoulders of giants.


The After-Life… for Paintings

It’s so small you don’t need to measure since the sofa looks tiny in the cavernous furniture store but after you buy it, the size seems to grow. It barely fits in your car and when you get home, the little couch somehow expanded and takes up half the living room.

Have you ever noticed that paintings can change too? They can take on a life of their own. When you finish one late at night, after you clean up your brushes, take one last look before going to bed because it will never be the same again. Something happens when you sleep and in the morning, when you look with fresh eyes, it looks different. More harmonious colors, better composition than you remembered, or sometimes total disaster.  How does it get either better or worse seemingly on its own? And, several days latter it may have changed again. Some physical changes may be part of the explanation; paint may dry lighter or duller, illumination by cool daylight or warm incandescent cause the paint to reflect differently, and its possible elves could have been doing some touching up, but all of these things are not likely to produce enough of a change, to change your mind.

This can be explained by our own standards changing. When we in the midst of creating, we have a vision or are caught up in the fun. We judge by comparing our creation with our vision, but over time our memory fades and we no longer have a standard. Good thing we create something because it’s all that is left afterwards. If you don’t like what you create, don’t tear it up or throw it away until after you had some time for the after-life effects. Ideas change too so sleeping on a good idea can make it better, or not.

– have you seen your creations take on life of their own?


RED: No longer banished

Much more important than red states or who controls congress. Cadmium reds and yellow are some of the most vibrant colors and can be mixed together to make a perfect Halloween pumpkins orange, but that’s not the scary part, they have a dark side too and along with many other careful artists, I have taken the step of banning them from my palette since they are highly toxic. Light fast colors keep the paintings from fading over time but I don’t want to fade either.

Recently, I found them on the recommended list for a painting class I was taking and decided I would not conform with the rest of the class. An artist who is non-conforming? yeah I guess that’s OK, but how else to capture the rosie flesh tones of the models?

I was ordering some supplies from Daniel Smith and noticed an innovation. They formulated a new series of Cadmium “Hues” and say they provide “the richness of classic cadmium colors without the toxicity of heavy metal pigments”. Well I ordered some and can’t wait to try them, but I probably still won’t fit in at class.