Feeling my Way Through the Creative Process: From Control to Collaboration

My creative process is now in a new phase with a couple of clear parameters: Marc Lancet’s tea bowls painted in the center of a square foot. I walk into the studio and see the first six paintings in the silvery north light.

I’m struck by how the tea bowls appear to be floating. Now that they are more developed, they seem to defy gravity. This is especially odd as they have so much gravity about them; the solidity of the stoneware, the somber colors, the connection to ancient traditions. They are heavy. It’s not like I’ve painted six butterflies or feathers or flowers. And yet, there they are, floating. Like spirits, like ghosts, like the tombstones in Shinto graveyards I once saw rising above the ferns. They seem to hang in the blue air, silently staring at me.

I get to work, weighed down by more questions and doubts. What does this work mean? Do I need to know what it means? Am I floating?

 I observe my emotions and thoughts changing my point of view. I try to bring my attention to my breathing, my heartbeat, the warmth of my head under my hair. I start to think the muted colors and close values of the tea bowls make them appear somber. “Hollow”, “empty”, “dark”; these words come to my mind. The paintings start to look sad and lonely, paintings of empty vessels.

Is this a stage I am at as an artist? “The stage of the empty vessel”? They seem as if they are calling to be filled, as if they are waiting for something to happen, to fall into them from the sky. They are like open mouths waiting to be fed.

The studio is quiet, like a monastery. The bowls are like stone pillars, ancient and silent and strong. Their form creates the emptiness that fills them. Am I painting portraits of emptiness? Or might all this emptiness represent potential, opportunity, freedom, open space to be filled?

I know I just need to keep working and my relationship to this effort will keep changing.

I’m painting a background color. What and where is the background? Is it just space? As I make it lighter, darker, warmer, or cooler, my feelings change. I am mixing color to make iron red quieter, muting it with its complement, green. Complementary colors neutralize each other and soon the tea bowl is vibrating right on the border of the two. I make the color green, then back to red. Suddenly I realize there are tears in my eyes. Strangely, the effort of walking this edge between opposite colors is deeply moving. Why?

As I work, the values become more and more accurate and the marks better describe the surface. It’s like an alphabet giving way to words and then words to sentences. As the image becomes richer, more considered, and more “real”, my ego-association with it and doubt about it fall away. It takes on a life of its own and I become more and more intrigued. I judge less and observe more. I become more collaborator then creator.

When a painting of something starts to become real in this way and catches some of the fire of the original object, it takes on meaning. For me, it starts to speak of everything that object is part of.

Of the clay dug out of the earth.

Of the loving care and skill of my friend, its maker.

Of the depths of the culture and heat of the fire that gave birth to it.

Of the appreciation that motivates me to paint it.

The painting teaches me about my way of fashioning reality. But it cannot answer the question of it’s own existence: What’s the point of painting a tea bowl?

A New Direction Emerges

Six works in progress, Paintings of Marc Lancet Tea Bowls

I think I’m starting to come out of the place of unknowing

I have inklings of new beginnings. But when I am at the start of a new creative endeavor the theory-practice gap is a yawning chasm. All my ideas, interests and impulses are pure theory till I put brush to canvas and manifest something. The first steps are baby steps, tentative and doubtful. I am surrounded by questions. I even went back up to the pond thinking maybe I should spend another year painting that same view again. But I know I can only go forward. It’s strange to be driven to do something so intensely when you don’t know what it is.

At some point I realized that I wanted to paint something I was authentically connected to, and to paint about that relationship. The love I feel for the pond and the tree I’ve been painting for the past year was so palpable. That place is so meaningful to me, and when I painted that scene, that love was part of the activity. Looking at the collection of over 60 paintings in the pond series,  sometimes it seems the subject is the depth of respect and reverence I have for that place rather than just the place itself. 

Marc Lancet, wood-fired Chawan, 2006

These thoughts were in my mind as I walked through my studio and my eye fell on a tea bowl made by my friend Marc Lancet. I’ve been collecting tea bowls, made mostly by Marc, for over 20 years. I have a collection of over 25 of them. They are so much more than beautiful. In addition to demonstrating the exquisite aesthetics of an ancient culture, they somehow have a sense of geology, as if they emerged like stones from the heart of the earth. They are bright and empty and silent. When I sit with them, they teach me to pay attention and listen, and to remember what is important and simple and astonishing.

I’ll paint these bowls, I thought. In some ways they are like my tree, there is a deep relationship there and they are local, simple and immediate. I reflect on how the way the sculpted clay engages heat and flame reminds me of the dance between the cultivated and the wild that I witnessed every day that I painted at the pond. But, in another way, these bowls are nothing like the pond, for they are still and unchanging, especially in the controlled light of the studio. Perhaps they will offer an interesting counterpoint to all that study of change and lead me to consider questions of motion and stillness yet again.

Now I have to bridge that gap and actually paint! First there is set-up. What height to place the bowl? Do I paint standing or sitting? How to arrange the lighting? What scale? What does scale even mean here? Do I paint them life-size? Can I make them smaller? Does larger scale connote commitment, intensity, reverence, respect? I begin to remember how many questions arise when I try to do something as simple as “paint a tea bowl”.

I pass another day with seven false starts in paint on different-sized canvases and from different points of view. I decide I need to paint the bowl floating in space; any ground gives too much context and serves as a distraction. I “realize” (although I don’t know how I know this or what unspoken law of composition I might be following) that I need squares, I can only paint these tea bowls on squares. I begin with a 16” x 16” square and begin painting the bowl in the center of it. An hour later, I know it’s wrong. Either the space is too big around the bowl or, if I fill that space, the bowl itself gets too magnified.  I do want a little of the magnification that happens when you give something your full attention. At this point I consider giving the whole effort up as it’s been a couple of days and it just doesn’t seem to be working.

Then I try a 12” x 12” square: one square foot. Immediately I recognize that size, that measure of so many measures, from stepping stones and floor tiles to mirror tiles and countertops. Although I know that particular size so well, I’ve never painted on a square foot canvas. I look at the square foot and think, what could be more banal? And what could be more simple than a clay tea bowl fired in a wood fire? The two together are interesting.

I notice a small rush of fascination and feel the thrill of inspiration. I also feel some relief as I think finally something substantial I can work with has emerged.  Of course, this may end up being another false start. But for now I see a doorway to walk through, a new pathway to explore the nature of human meaning-making.

The Place of Unknowing

Facing the blank canvas…again

Diving back in after 4 months away from posting on my blog and two months out of the studio. The year of painting the pond almost every day is now well behind me and I plunge ahead to the next thing. I am faced with initiating new directions after completing a large body of work.

This is the private part of the process. It always has been for me; it may be for most artists…the still place, the place when the wind stops filling your sails, the place of huge questions and feeling small, and doubt.

Alone again in the studio and ready to paint, I find myself in what I’d call the place of unknowing. This is a place in which I have spent time before. I’m not comfortable when I don’t know what to do: what I want to do, what I should do, what I must do.

Adding to my discomfort is the heartbeat of the world, which is especially loud and insistent to me these days and seems to amplify everything. Heat waves and fires, violence,  injustice and war, hurricanes, Donald Trump! It is all enraging, distracting, heartbreaking and confusing.

This is an erratic place to be. I swing from frantically starting new work to deciding to try to finish or re-work old work, to staring out the window or at the wall. Inspiration could strike at any moment, could come from any direction. I am energized and edgy, stimulated, frustrated, fascinated.

In this place of unknowing I find myself looking back, as if searching for clues. Yes, I’ve been here before, and I can remember this part of the cycle. In my creative process there is a breathing in and out from clarity to muddle, in and out from knowing to unknowing. Although I have lived with this cycle for decades still the unknowing is always private and hard.

 In an effort to better understand the work of art, I am trying to make this opaque part of the process transparent, especially to myself. As I  write about this, I find myself searching for the right metaphors. How can I describe this journey of moving from knowing to unknowing and back again?

  • A door that opens up and then closes again;
  • A visitation that materializes and then vanishes before my eyes;
  • A light that clearly illuminates everything and then turns off again, leaving me in the darkness;
  • Falling in and out of love.

I’m not sure which fits best but there is a little truth in each. Even though I have experienced this before, I am still feeling lost and in a sense it feels like the first time. What do I do in the dark? Wait for the lights to come on or walk with my hands out? How can I get that door to open again? How long will it remain shut?

I remember Chekhov said: The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.

After many years of moving through this part of the cycle, at least I have come to understand that a few things are called for: trust in the process, heightened awareness, a willingness to experiment, and a lot of patient practice. But perhaps what I need most is what I seem to have the least of, faith.

Final Reflections: New Points of View



Life is full of endings, which are also beginnings. I am experiencing an ending now, and even when the end has been long anticipated, it can still take me by surprise, like the arrival of spring at winter’s end, or the first time it rains at the end of the dry months. We all know the idea of something can be so different then the actual experience, but even so we often still navigate through life by constellations that are only in our minds. At least I do. So I guess it should be no wonder that I am surprised when I arrive at my destination.

Part of me didn’t realize that May was slipping away. Today is the 28th already! In a matter of days I will be finished with a full 12-month cycle of pond paintings and will hang up my 61st painting and call the work done.

With this in mind I went up to the pond, perhaps for the last time, to finish this project. As I set about my routine, carrying my easel and paints, setting up the bench and the umbrella, I couldn’t decide whether this last painting session was particularly meaningful or practically meaningless. Sacred ritual or banal routine?

I suppose trying to bring painting number sixty-one to a good conclusion, was also in some sense trying to finish the whole year, and this one big piece of work, in a good way. I thought about other endings; school terms end, jobs usually end as do most love affairs, meals, parties, battles, trails, trials, sports events, books, lives. We grapple with a lot of endings. They are often attended by ceremonies; most humans like to end things well.

Standing in front of the tree yet again, on this beautiful May morning, noticing how blue the greens look, the idea of an “end” struck me as quite artificial. I know the march of time and change will continue, the grassy bank will turn golden then violet, the tree will slowly turn yellow then orange. When I am gone, everything will still be here, going on without me. I felt like I was tugging myself out of a relational fabric, separating myself, tearing away from the tree’s gaze.

Clearly, I am leaving the comfort of something, a pattern, and an engagement. It seems like I am leaving the guarantee of a beloved practice, leaving the kaleidoscope of infinite variations of earth and water, which I have found to be nourishing and seemingly inexhaustible.

Part of me yearned to sit there forever, to make this my life, this view, this task of painting it. A task I would never finish. It all felt bigger than my small self, like the cathedrals of old where people lived and died carving the stones that their grandfathers cut and that would be finished by their children or grandchildren after them. There must have been great comfort in that for some; others probably felt imprisoned.

Some months ago, painting this view every day seemed contrived, artificial and at times senseless. Now it is leaving the effort that seems contrived. Like I am breaking up a relationship with my head when my heart is still in love. Like I am closing my eyes just as I am really beginning to see.

Now my blog will turn to the task of taking a new step, finding the way forward, which sometimes is the way back. This blog is called a “creative process journal” and it is about to enter what I think is one of the most interesting parts of the creative process…figuring out what to do next, succession, progression, sometimes even evolution.

Whenever I look at these paintings I will be reminded of what is possible; that a deep and committed relationship can be fresh and exciting and that it keeps opening as I go deeper. Looking forward right now I think my task is to see that I am not really leaving anything. It is to stay in that relational fabric, that place of connection and reverence, that place of reciprocity. Over the last year, I have found infinity in the pond view, now I will seek to find all I love about that view everywhere else.


Artwork as Process or Product? Seeking Wisdom in the Balance

Version 2


Studio wall with pond paintings at different stages of finish

I was with 16 students at the Esalen Institute last week, teaching landscape painting. Once again, as I have twice a year for about the last 15 years, I journeyed with each painter as they encountered, and tried to make some sense of, the spectacular land and seascape. Some were just beginners and some had been painting for years. On the last evening, as the class enjoyed and discussed the over 50 paintings painted during the week, we talked a lot about our experience and found as much value in our stories and process reflections as we did in the paintings themselves.

Returning to the studio, I now face the end of my project. Only a few weeks left and the full year cycle is complete. As I started the final group of five May paintings, I have found myself thinking about the old story, said to be Chinese in origin, of the artist who is commissioned by a wealthy patron to paint a fish. The patron visits often, over a couple of year period, seeking his finished commission and is always turned away. One day the patron finally demands to have the painting. Putting a fresh piece of paper on the table, the artist reluctantly paints a wonderful fish in a few moments and the man is amazed and delighted, but frustrated that he had to wait so long. In response to the patron’s admonitions, the artist opens her closet and a thousand paintings of fish tumble out.

I’ve always wondered about the meaning of this story. As I return to my studio with now 60 pond paintings on the walls, I notice this story is again on my mind.

In one interpretation, this ancient allegory is about striving for perfection, something that artists often do. I imagine the artist and the patron are two parts of the self. The artist’s dissatisfaction with her work and sense that it could be better drives her on to the next painting. Whether it is the same subject or a different one, in one sense all paintings are the same and the basic effort is repeated over and over. Like reaching for the stars, no matter how much higher we reach than the last time, the stars always seem to be just as far away. The artist can never really “arrive” or “finish”. The patron is the voice of the real world, the grounded and demanding voice that calls us to accept what we are and where we are right now, even if it is not perfect. This is the voice that knows that true perfection cannot be achieved and that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Paradoxically for the patron to get what he wanted, a marvelous painting, the artist had to both strive for the unachievable but then be interrupted in her striving. So maybe the lesson is to seek balance between the two viewpoints, that both are needed to have great works of art.

From another point of view, this story is about the tension between product and process. The patron was focused on an object, a fixed product, the artist was engaged in a process and the paintings simply gave evidence of that process and thus could never be viewed as “finished”. If the patron, representing the product point of view, had never demanded the finished painting, the artist in the story would perhaps have painted fish for the rest of her life.

I wonder, did she stop painting fish after giving the commission to the patron? Was his intervention an act of mercy or violent interruption? Perhaps the story is about the irreconcilable difference between a product orientation and a process one and the fact that designating a work of art as a product, an end in itself, an object, is really missing some fundamental truth.

I can see how painting all these pond paintings for all these months has caused me to be more and more process oriented. In the face of 60 paintings of the pond, it is impossible for me to see one of them as separate, “finished “ or “realized”. It is clear to me that the striving and deepening could go on forever and wind would always fill my sails. I found myself last week, as a teacher, also focusing on process and inviting my students to let go of their attachment to the product or outcome and put all of themselves into the act of painting, connecting, authentically relating to their world, be it outer or inner.

But where does that leave the patron? The tens of thousands of great paintings on walls across the planet are indeed all objects, products that were snatched out of some artist’s life process, even though it was not perfect, and made to stand alone.

I guess for now my conclusion is that we need both, that the story is a cautionary tale to both inner artist and inner patron. Like so many other conclusions, it leads me to the phrase my mother often says “it’s just like everything else,” the answer is both yes and no, it’s all about balance. So this is what I’m thinking, as I stuff the last few pond paintings into my overflowing closet



Version 2
Fish Study, oil on linen

Trying to Paint with a Cluttered Mind: From Muddles to Breakthroughs



Work in Progress, seeing shapes
Work in progress, April afternoon

Yesterday the cloud cover almost kept me in the studio trying to finish my bright sunny April paintings from memory. Although I was comfortably painting in the warm room under controlled light a voice kept pushing me out the door, encouraging me to do a painting under cloudy skies, without shadows, “this may be my only opportunity!”

I was motivated to the pond by this voice in spite of the hassle and logistics of schlepping all my stuff. The journey from point A to B ended up including dealing with two phone calls and six emails and an NPR crisis update filled with terrible news. By the time I made it to the pond my mind was ringing with the noise of modern life. I felt like I was swimming through something thick, like those dreams when you try to run but can hardly move your legs.

I imagine the archetypal artist’s life of focused solitude. Rilke spending years in a stone tower alone on Lake Geneva, sinking deeper and deeper into his creative process and developing laser-like focus.


I imagine that that total focus may be the only way to succeed as an artist and that I have failed to create the right conditions for my own potential to be realized. I pick up my brushes even as I find myself swimming in unanswerable questions and doubt.


I try to refocus on my purpose. In spite of the news and the emails, I remember my singular reason for being there: to paint my subject without shadows. But as I got to work, the sky abruptly cleared. My controlling, out-come driven mind was very frustrated and this frustration was now added to my state.

Then something happened. On this morning with this scramble in my mind, as I looked out at my view, suddenly I just saw shapes! Not leaves and trees and water, just shapes. This idea is nothing new in the history of landscape painting but I was having a living experience of it. There was something thrilling happening to my seeing, accompanied by a sudden sense of fascination, delight and wellbeing.

As the sun came out, I noticed the difference between what I was doing today and what I had been doing the day before. I was fascinated by the emerging dialogue between the natural objects and the pure shapes. Suddenly I was on a path that I didn’t imagine being on just an hour earlier.This small shift woke me up to the fact that I could see at all and that I was co-creating my visual world. I became engrossed in the humble miracle of simply seeing.

Was this a breakthrough? Why did this happen this morning?

I reflect on the circumstance, my distracted mind, my foiled plans to paint in diffused light, my doubt, struggle and frustration.

Why do I often find my breakthrough moments follow a struggle? I need to be willing and receptive to have these moments but it seems like something has to be broken open first. Why the resistance to openness? Is it fear? Is it lack of faith that I will encounter something substantial, powerful or important, or useful or real?

It is well known that creative breakthroughs often emerge out of muddles, confusion, even a sense of failure. But eventually I want to find the practice that gets me to the place of receptivity without tearing something apart. A place beyond agendas and self-consciousness. I want to remember that I don’t know where I’m going and to finally be comfortable with that. It is not my job to get somewhere, it is just my job to start walking.


Coming to Terms with Motion and Stillness in Painting


Still Life with Skull and Bottles, oil in linen, 1989
I’ve been away from my subject for a whole week, down in Southern California. I return to the misty morning and a great blue heron takes wing and flies away as I approach the pond. The golden willow tree is covered in new leaves, in fact abundant new growth is everywhere. Most of the warm tones, the red of the twigs, the tips of coral and salmon and the strange violets, are gone. The tree, slope and oaks behind are now green. Again my view is all new.

I begin what will be my suite of April paintings, excited to follow the changes, aware that May and the end of my project is quickly approaching.

My trip to San Diego was in part to clean out my old studio, a garage in my family’s house. Many of the paintings that I have there are well over 25 years old. At that time in my life I had just returned from Italy and was painting still life paintings like the image on this post. I set up my studio as a highly controlled North light environment. Everything was designed for stillness and consistency in accordance with the ancient principles and techniques I learned in Italy. I showed and sold most of the meticulous still lives of that period but a handful are still left and, seeing them again, they look frozen to me. There is a certain beauty about them but also an earie breathless silence. This is especially true in contrast to my living, breathing, pulsing scene at the pond.

I remember so well painting in that garage/studio; the stillness, the uniformity of the Northern exposure, the high window with the 45 degree slope of light, just as Leonardo Da Vinci specified. Everything was controlled and unchanging. For some reason I was interested most in found inanimate objects that were stable, not fruit or flowers so much but skulls and jars and bottles and stones and bits of tapestry. If I could make things in Nature still enough, they would look like paintings even before I painted them.

It seemed like I had endless, un-pressured time to paint, even if I was painting a commission. My subject would not ripen or rot or turn colors or change form. There was no wind or sun or changing shadows to deal with. I could spend hours painting the stem of a bottle or the grain of a piece of wood. When I left and returned, everything was always just as I left it. In retrospect, I see that somehow this mimicked the sense of time my 25 year old self had; no hurry, no scarcity, hours and days and weeks and years filled my basket. And I barely noticed myself or my friends changing. I knew my life would all be there again tomorrow, just like the still life awaiting me in the studio.

But now the scene before me never looks like a painting, it’s a quickly moving picture. Everything seems to be changing all the time, even in a day, from morning to afternoon. It feels like yesterday that the buds started swelling and tomorrow the leaves will be turning orange and falling. I am easily disoriented when a hot afternoon in late February feels like early July.

Just as the stillness of my still lives supported that sense of time I had when I was younger, so the rush of change around me supports the sense that I have now: that everything is fleeting and changing, that nothing is still. If I want to paint something in Nature, honestly and directly, I must accept my limitations. I must run forward and seize the moment. I must do it all now, for as imperfect and clumsy as my painting may be, I know I only get one chance. Nothing lasts for long.

As I stood in the now-empty garage it occurred to me that making Nature “still” was about control, even oppression, or assertion of our power to hold back the tides of time. My still life paintings appeared to be a kind of celebration of victory over change, the very change I now study and try to portray.

I wonder about this shift, over almost three decades, from painting what appears to be still to painting what is in motion. Some spiritual practices suggest we can find the truth by focusing on the unchanging, permanent and eternal. I find myself trying to get at the truth of things by focusing on the changing, dynamic processes of Nature. Am I barking up the wrong tree? Or is change the one great constant and by focusing on change I am in fact focusing on the eternal and unchanging? I’m led to more questions and yet another paradox.