To Fish or Cut Bait -That is the Question

Most artists I know, like me, have an ongoing struggle to find a comfortable creative balance between planning and intuition.

At the outset, would-be artists need some basic knowledge: Can I mix different brands of pigment? Surely I don't need all 146 colors offered. Is it OK to paint undiluted pigment directly from the tube? Hmmm. Staining, granulating, and opaque pigments? Do I need to worry about transparency and permanency ratings and what do they really mean? Choosing brushes and paper is akin to driving in a major city without a map or a GPS while wearing a blindfold.

Next we need design knowledge to make decisions and form a plan. When starting, we don't already have what we need to know stored in our heads. It is important to know the elements and principles of design and how to make them work in our paintings. Still, information and knowledge alone won't result in good art. We need enough experience to internalize all we learn before we can use it intuitively.

One workshop teacher said we would need to paint 1500 watercolors to feel confident and to begin to master the medium. I mentally rolled my eyes. I had a good number of paintings behind me at that point, but nowhere near 1500!  I realized that she was really saying that to become an accomplished watercolorist takes a great deal of experience. You have to pay your dues.

My first watercolor instructions called for several thumbnail drawings, value plans, a color plan, and even thumbnail paintings. We were to solve problems in the planning stages before ever starting the real thing. It is pretty much a standard approach in many "how to" books, and for good reason. I myself learned a lot by proceeding in that way. Armed with basic knowledge and my plan, my paintings were careful, controlled, and tight.

Another "controlling" factor was that I painted almost solely from an extensive file of photographs organized with tabbed dividers - Flowers, Animals, Farm Buildings, Fruit, People, etc. I longed to splash away, to be more expressive and have more freedom. But like a person trying to quit smoking who needs a pack of cigarettes in their pocket, I felt poweless to put the pictures away. There was no tab labeled "Intuition" and no photographs to rely on for that.

And finally, I painted for other people rather than myself. People appreciated my paintings. My work sold. Over the years I have been most grateful for a lively and successful business that included commission paintings. But while I was driving the tour bus, I was not choosing the destination or what we did when we arrived.

When I eventually recognized the need for change, I was reminded of the old saw, "Are you going to fish or cut bait?" I had both knowledge and experience, and it was time for me to paint more intuitively.

The opportunity to learn from other artists who opted out of "cutting bait" might have always been there, but I just didn't recognize what they were doing and that I could learn from them. One workshop instructor rejected the time honored process of stretching the watercolor paper before painting. For her, it took too long, and made the blank (albeit very flat) paper too precious. She was afraid of failing after she had invested time in stretching the paper.  So she chose to "start fishing" rather than "cut bait," and paints intuitively without the benefit of stretched paper, a plan, or thumbnails sketches.

A few years ago I was somewhat surprised to realize that my best paintings consistently happened when I gave up control. The tranformation was purposeful, but so gradual that I didn't recognize that I had "passed GO." My paintings were more creative, and more of a reflection of me. Painting was less stressful, more fun. Exciting! While painting intuitively I am open to any possibility, and can respond to what happens on the paper at that moment. Instead of regarding "accidents" as mistakes, I can take advantage of surprises and interesting things that just happen on the paper.

It is gratifying to have people appreciate my work, and pay me the ultimate compliment of buying one or more of my paintings. If my work proves to be entertaining to viewers, that is a bonus, but my goal now is to paint the best paintings I can.

I'm eagerly looking forward spending extra time in my studio during what promises to be a cold, snowy winter. I plan to "fish" and create a body of new work by painting intuitively. Stay tuned. I will be posting images of new work soon.  




Ox Gall on my nose - Wet brush in hand 

If you drove by my house in the dark the last month or two, you might have noticed my studio lights glowing through the blinds. Many mornings I start painting well before sunrise and often paint late into the night. The push is on to finish commission paintings that will be presented as Christmas gifts. Finishing these orders by a specific deadline is a priority. It takes precedence over putting up a Christmas tree and decorating my home for the holiday. It takes discipline to keep my nose on my watercolor paper (coated with Ox gall) and my brushes wet. The last gift paintings were finished and delivered today, and the pressure is off. By this evening I'm nearly euphoric with the sense of freedom this gives me!

In the past, my family arriving from a distance for the holidays likely found themselves shanghaied into service cleaning glass, gluing barrier paper to the back of a frame, cutting picture wire, answering the doorbell, and handing finished work to customers as late as Christmas eve! That was, admittedly, cutting it a little close. Under those circumstances, it is amazing they continued to come for the holidays year after year. Chex party mix? Too buttery to eat while handling paintings. Hot cider? Not until "our" work is done lest we spill. Christmas cookies? Who had time to bake any!

Since then I have learned to exercise some restraint on the number of commissions I do each year. People who want to order paintings in August or September for Christmas gifts are surprised to find that I stop taking orders about July 4th. Even after Christmas, there is a list of orders to fill for other events.  I foolishly dream of finishing every last commission on that list before taking on any more.

Artist friends tell me they are envious of my commissions, and ask how I get so many orders. I'm not sure, but it seems that it might be a "small town" thing. It is easy to have at least a nodding acquaintance with nearly every other resident in a town of only 10.000 or so. I'm the only "Drennen" in the telephone directory. I've painted for over 25 years, my work is visible in the community, and satisfied customers spread the word. When the local paper is short on news, they sometimes publish an article about me. That doesn't happen as easily a larger city.

One day I was on my way to the bank to deposit a check for a painting, feeling smug that I had delivered an order and by doing so, had shortened my list of commissions by one. A celebratory cup of hot chocolate from a fast food place on the way seemed appealing, and the drive-through clerk leaned close to the little window and ordered a painting before handing out my order. Once in the bank, a fellow customer waylaid me to order a painting before I could make my deposit.

Commissions have long been an enjoyable aspect of my work. But over time, the demand has grown. I now feel the need to spend less time on orders to allow more time to create a body of work that will allow me to schedule several concurrent gallery shows of 15-20 paintings each. I also aspire to earn signature membership status in the American Watercolor Society, National Watercolor Society, or the Transparent Watercolor Society of America. Perhaps it is time for me to "retire" from commissions - finish the last of the orders on my list, and accept no more. I'm thinking about it.... but in the meantime....

I'll keep painting - Ox gall on my nose, wet brush in hand. 



IWS, WHS, and the GWS

People who look closely at my paintings sometimes notice the letters IWS and WHS following my signature. Since I am of the opinion that our culture is overrun with meaningless acronyms, it surprises me that viewers actually risk asking me what the acronyms mean. And thank you! I'm glad you ask. Such letters indicate that the artist has attained a certain level of proficiency and met criteria outlined by a specific watercolor society. At that point "Signature Status" is conferred on the artist, recognizing their achievement and giving permission for him or her to use the identifying letters of that society following their signature on each painting.

IWS stands for Iowa Watercolor Society, and I have had signature status with this organization since 1992. To qualify, an artist must have 3 paintings accepted in the annual juried show.

The Watercolor Honor Society is a national organization, represented by the letters WHS. This group is affiliated with the Springfield Art Museum in Springfield, Missouri where the juried competition "Watercolor U.S.A." is held each year. My first entry to this show was accepted, and I was automatically awarded signature status when my painting also won a prize.

The stringent requirements to earn signature status in some of the most pretigious watercolor societies can be gruelling. Some artists spend their entire life trying to achieve signature status in the American Watercolor Society (AWS), the Transparent Watercolor Society of America (TWSA), or National Watercolor Society (NWS) without ever reaching that goal.

Other artists have a list of signatures longer then their name! Lest they appear to be braggadicios, most tactfully drop the less well-known signatures in favor of those most coveted and recognized.

And what is the GWS? It is my own watercolor society, and I'm the only member. Long ago I had a client who wanted to buy a painting, but asked if I could change a few things. I shrugged, but remembering the old saw "The client is always right" I did as asked. But when he saw the changes, he realized he wanted other changes as well, and then still more. All of this detracted from the painting. I lammented about this to an artist friend, telling her that since the client had interfered, I was going to omit the letters for signature status when I signed the painting. But the client noticed that the letters were missing, and brought the painting back for me to finish my signature. I was younger then - less confident. I was not bold enough to stand my ground and explain why I would not complete my signature. So I gritted my teeth and added the initials for my signature status. My own way to have the last word came to me belatedly, as usual. But I'm ready if the same situation presents iteself again. I will simply add one more signature - GWS - the Gutless Wonder Society. So if you ever see one of my paintings with IWS, WHS, and GWS after my name .... well..... you'll know what happened.





Readers may be surprised to learn (assuming you don't already know) there is more to signing a painting than simply adding your moniker. In fact, there is a little "science" to be applied to this important step. The word "science" may be an exaggeration, but there are several things to consider.

Placement in the lower right corner may seem logical and nearly automatic. But since we read from left to right in this culture, it might make more sense to sign in the lower left corner. The eye movement of viewers who lean in to read your signature will read it from left to right and keep their eyes moving in that direction - directly into your painting rather than off the edge of the paper. It seems a small thing, but I usually try to sign in the lower left corner. Can't hurt!

Someone suggested I sign my paintings with my first initial and surname only, because there is a bias against women artists. I'm somewhat doubtful about that, but my name is quite long enough and a nice size with the initial of my first name followed by my surname. Just in case there really is a bias, I sign with my first initial and last name. Can't hurt! It fits nicey into the scheme of most paintings. I do notice, however, that many male artists sign with a first initial and their last name. Do you suppose they are avoiding a possible bias in favor of female artists? As they sign their work, they are probaby saying, "Can't hurt!"

Most artists find a distinctive signature style and stick with it. That way, just a glance at your signature can identify you to the viewer. Sometimes a signature is not a signature at all, but something unusual and noticeable that is included in virtually every work by that artist. One such "signature" is that of Miles Batt, who paints an extremely realistic, shiny, 4-hole red button (or two or three) in his otherwise abstract, non-objective paintings. He includes a shadow of the button, and maybe thread that holds the button in place. It looks as if you could pick the button off the surface of the painting.

Another unusual "signature" that has been associated with Miles Batt are paintings that appear to have been executed on a yellow manila envelope - the kind with the cardboard buttons and the little string to wind around them in a figure 8 to keep the enveloped closed. These paintings are show-stoppers though, because the envelopes are each 80 x 60 inches! You might enjoy having a look at examples of both of his nameless trademark "signatures" at:

Can't hurt!



Do you ever read a book that is so good you hate to reach the end? Even if another book close at hand might be just as compelling, it just doesn't measure up while the first one still in your head.

Creating a painting is like that too. Some paintings all but paint themselves. It is so exciting when just the right things happen on the paper and a great piece of art appears. Not all paintings happen so easily. Some are really a lot of work. When things are going well and I'm having a great time painting, I'm reluctant to call a halt. But ignoring or failing to recognize that moment when a painting is finished and needs nothing more, or willfully ignoring it, is dangerous. It is so tempting to prolong the pleasure, adding ever more layers and details and overworking it until the painting loses the freshness and beauty that was there an hour or two before. And there is no backing up.

 "How many artists does it take to create a painting?" Answer: "Two. One to paint and the other to hit him on the head with a rubber mallet when the painting is finished."

No matter how good the book was, how well the painting turned out, or how much fun it was to paint it, the fact that it reached a conclusion - an end - invariably causes a small "letdown" - the feeling that what comes next can't possibly be as satisfying. And to avoid possible disappointment or frustration of a starting a new painting, I'm soon looking in the refrigerator, chatting on the phone, or watching a re-run of I Love Lucy.

Eventually I found that one solution to this is having "Leaners."

There is an odd man leaning against one wall of my studio. He is frowning. A headache? His hat is hanging on the backpost of his chair, and he is holding one hand to the side of his face. Maybe a toothache. Waiting for an appointment with the IRS? This man is a "leaner" and he has a lot of company with other "leaners" along my studio wall: A bowl of colorful but unidentifiable fruit. A stand of Hollyhocks.  A dark forest - Transylvania? 

"Leaners" are paintings in progress - leaning against the wall, waiting for me to finish them. They effectively banish those blank times between the finish of one painting and the start of another.   Rather than start and finish one painting at a time, I start many paintings so there is always something to work on. One wall of my studio is lined with layers of "leaners." I feel no particular pressure to finish them. But having something else already in progress when I finish a painting helps me stay productive, excited about the next painting.

Visitors to my studio seem to enjoy sorting through the many leaners against the wall. They ask questions about them: What inspired you? Where is this going? What does this mean? Why is one ear higher than the other? Or they make interesting comments: Those plates are arresting because they aren't the same size. This texture is so appealing! Their curiosity and enthusiasm sometimes help me make painting decisions.

So - I'm off to sort through the "leaners." The painting of the odd man is not finished, but I've just decided that the title of that painting will be "The Endless Wait." That will be appropriate because he will remain a "leaner" for now, still waiting.