Artwork as Process or Product? Seeking Wisdom in the Balance


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



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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.

Beyond the Cult of the Individual: New Perspectives on the Boundaries of a Work of Art

Selection of 16 of 50 pond series paintings

For most of us, an important part of creative process is thinking. I have observed in myself how what I think has a major impact on what I paint. This may sound obvious, but it becomes interesting when I see my work change in response to the way I think. I’m watching this happen now as I recently find myself re-framing what it is that I have been doing all these months painting up at the pond.

My new perspective came after a studio conversation with a friend. We were looking at my 49 paintings (of the same view) and she identified some core themes that are emerging in this series: slowing down, staying local and paying attention to something near and small and natural, over a long period of time. She talked about how seeing these paintings together speaks of these things and also of our capacity to become highly sensitized to, and appreciative of, our surroundings. And it’s true that even though my subject is small and unspectacular, the dynamism, richness and diversity that my ever-deepening relationship to this place and practice makes available to me blows my mind.

As I host visitors, I’m noticing that for a viewer to grasp these themes they need to see the paintings together. This new realization has shifted my perception, from seeing each painting as a whole onto itself (an individual), to seeing them as parts of a greater whole (a community).

This is to say I am now considering the idea that I am making, not a series of individual paintings, but one big piece which is dependent on all its parts to fully function and which is greater than the sum of those parts.

So how has this new way of thinking changed my work?

First, I have a heightened sense of valuing the unusual and the unique. This makes me more likely to accentuate differences and try new things because I know that even bold experiments can be balanced within the greater whole. Every painting that pushes an edge expands the scope of the whole effort. This is exciting and gives me a greater sense of freedom and adventure as I paint.

Next, when I think of all of these paintings as parts of one whole work, each painting becomes significant not only in relationship to the subject and to myself, but to the other paintings as well. I am no longer thinking about completing one painting, I am thinking about being in the process of completing the group as a whole.

So this shift from part to whole, from individual to community, is a shift toward valuing diversity and focusing more on process and relationship. There is suddenly a lot less beginning and ending and a lot more in between. Before I was thinking in terms of linear progression, movement in one direction, each piece was singular and sufficient and finished before the next was started. Now they are all in process together and that process seems more liquid, reflective and circular without hard boundaries.

Could it be that this shift from individual to collective orientation is really just a kind of waking up to the truth? Perhaps every work of art is always nested in a greater inquiry just as every individual is nested in a community (which I think can be claimed even for those who are “outsiders”). This change of mind will have a big impact on my choices in the remaining months of my project. If we all reframed ourselves as just small parts of something larger, who knows how much might change.


Repulsive Seduction: Travels out of My Color Comfort Zone

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Detail, work in progress, pond series

In the middle of a heat wave at the end of February, I had to take a week off painting and on Monday I returned to a whole new scene. Sometimes everything in the world around us seems still, almost frozen and other times, in a few days, everything changes. On this warming planet in Northern California, “still and frozen” doesn’t last long and spring can explode in the wintertime.

It’s March now and I have only 2 months left in my 12 month project. In mid-February, I almost started to grow weary of the effort but now at the edge of the forest I sense a buzz of excitement where all of the leaves are sprouting. Their haste to stretch themselves out in the sunshine is almost audible.


Where I live, March brings on an avalanche of pastel colors. In the landscape there is an outpouring of prettiness and loveliness. The somber winter mood that haunts my last five paintings is gone, chased away by all the new fluffy leaves and their delicate colors. The twigs of the golden willow tree, still bare, are just about to burst into buds and are turning a strange new color, hard to describe, a kind of pale yellow-coral. The suspense is palpable as I wait for them to also open. The billowy foliage clouds of the live oaks are now crowned with new growth which is a surprising high pitched yellow-crimson. It looks like everything is vibrating with fresh lightness.

It’s all so beautiful…and yet…. I don’t like these colors.

What does it mean to not like a color? What’s up with that? If I paint all of Nature why play favorites? Is it my temperament? Is it experience and socialization? What could be behind this mild sense of revulsion I feel when I mix these pastel colors of early spring? Creamy violet, pale green and yellow: some people love these colors, but I, alas, do not.

Oddly, I notice that my feelings about colors are not apparent until I try to reproduce them. I might be marveling, awestruck, at a sunset and then when I consider painting it, see the colors as loud, harsh and garish. At that moment, I simultaneously feel both the seduction of the real phenomenon and the repulsion of the simulacrum I make in my mind. When I look at a fresh blade of grass there is nothing about the green that I don’t like, but then when I paint it the acidity and brightness offends my sensibilities. Is it because I’m not painting it right? Are there some colors in Nature that are just hard to translate and others that aren’t? I know some poems or texts lend themselves to accurate translation and others elude it. Maybe it’s the same with colors.

There are many forces that shape our attitudes towards certain colors. We all know colors can be symbolic. In virtually every world religion and culture, colors are associated with meanings (which often directly contradict each other!). They represent all kinds of things from different states of consciousness to events in history or specific saints or Buddhas. Kandinsky in his wonderful little book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, described colors in terms of sound. He assigned every hue to specific notes. He was thought to have synesthesia and actually saw sound. His work as a painter led him to believe that colors/sounds could evoke physical, emotional or spiritual responses.

Our taste for certain colors might be a product of our socialization and acculturation but colors are also wavelengths of UV radiation. They can be given specific numbers and inhabit a specific place on the UV spectrum. Surely there is some purely physical way, subtle as it may be, that a color affects us as whole beings. Many people have their colors “done” by image consultants and are promised to look more clear-skinned, youthful, vibrant and sparkly eyed in the right colors. images (1)This implies that there are universal signals given off by colors. We all know that color is related to health. There is also the “value” of colors, how light or dark they are, and the fact that certain parts of our bodies are colored in a certain way, both further complicate this puzzle. It is clear that colors are significant and signify specific things to us. But as I try to sort through all the how’s and why’s, I can say that after all the years I’ve spent studying color theory in schools, I am still left with more questions than answers. 

In just one week the colors in my subject went from something ancient and somber-iron reds and cobalt blues and violets-to the bright chaos of a baby ward, fresh and bursting with happy vigorous new growth. From Kandinsky’s point of view, a brass band just showed up by the pond and started playing. It’s almost unbearable.

The colors now have that breathless innocence, they are simple, light, “milky” and low in saturation. I tend to like strong, complex colors. I like the colors that tangle up with each other, the ambiguous ones. Each one of us can find those colors that we love and surround ourselves with them, but if you are painting Nature you will sometimes also have to mix the colors that challenge or even offend your sensibilities. That’s what I’ll be up against these next two months as spring keeps unfolding. So now yet again, I find my practice pushing me out of my comfort zone and making me ask questions about the nature of things.


Hieronymus Bosch’s Tightrope: Traversing the Outer and Inner Landscape


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Early Morning, October, pond series

Two days ago, the weather changed. A storm was approaching and huge clouds were swirling above me. I was up at the pond painting and, as we all have at one time or another, I looked up to find dancing cloud animals. As I relaxed and looked more closely, I saw the head of a goat with clearly articulated horns and teeth, flared nostrils and a lavish curly white beard. If I squinted my eyes a bit, it appeared all the more vivid and real. The more I stared at it the more elaborate it became. As the goat-cloud moved, tossing a richly embroidered cloak over its massive shoulders, I could see its eye sockets and even eyebrows. It lifted its head and, as cloud animals inevitably do, it vanished.

Looking back down at my painting, I was struck by how differently I had been experiencing details during my meditative observation of the goat-cloud as opposed to my practice of painting at the pond. These past few weeks I’ve been confounded by the intricate detail of my winter scene, which now is increasing in complexity by the day with the emergence of hundreds of tiny buds on the willow branches and thousands of blades of acid-green grass spreading across the violet bank. I have been trying to cope with all this detail by reaching for bigger brushes and squinting to see the big shapes and gestures in spite of all the tiny bits and pieces.

So I found myself that morning one moment looking at a puffy cloud, imagining extravagant details, and the next moment looking at a detailed forest and trying to see the broad forms. Why is it that tiny details overwhelm and confuse my grasp of the character of my scene in Nature (the outer landscape), and on the other hand these details are the very thing that animates and enlivens my imaginary world of cloud animals (the inner landscape)?

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1480-1505


I often think about the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. This is a great example, as are many of his paintings, of the mysterious tightrope walked between Nature without and Nature within. The details in Bosch’s painting at first look very natural but as you look more closely they become more and more imaginary. Are the images of pleasure and terror sourced from a Nature external to the artist or do they flow from the Nature within? And how much real separation is there between this inner and outer “Nature”?

I don’t have a conclusion but I find this fascinating nonetheless. My impulse when creating from within is to embellish but my impulse when depicting what is without is to reduce. My fantastical visions seem to need embellishment to be fully realized but the challenge of painting Nature is to only put in what is absolutely necessary and leave out all the rest, like an arborist pruning trees down to the essential major branches. Empty/fill, inhale/exhale, another dance of two opposing impulses. Somehow the filling and emptying relate to each other, as if I am taking details out of one and pouring them into another, out of my scene into my imagination. I picture all those tiny blades and twigs and sticks that I prune away spilling out of my mind’s eye into the clouds and there transforming into great parades of tapestry-draped goats and horses.


Reflections on Water

Forest pool with sky and branches, photograph

Last Wednesday, the stillness in the brightening morning air was extraordinary and I sat painting, mesmerized by the vivid reflections on the quiet pond beneath the lifting fog. I was painting the water, at least I thought I was painting the water, but then my attention turned to what looked like the shape of a bone, a familiar shape, part of the spine or the pelvis. I followed that shape, and articulated it as it was drawn against the bank of trees before me. As my painting developed, I realized that I was not painting water but a reflection. But no, I was not just painting a reflection, but rather the shape created when the reflection and “reality” came together.

Work in progress, pond series, February morning

I watched as trees and branches greeted themselves in reflection at the pond’s edge to create new shapes, two worlds seeming to collaborate. These new forms spoke not only of the still water and the things reflected, but of the nature of reflections as well. The shapes also revealed mysterious patterns and hidden connections. Even though these revelations are wrought by water, when it is still and quiet the water itself remains hidden, almost invisible. It is the most important element of the view and yet the most humble.

As I think about water more deeply, I begin to understand truths about our visual experience of water. First there is not a prescribed answer to the question “how do I paint water?” I believe that although many people try, representing water cannot be reduced to a formula. Like so many other things, when we reduce them to formulae we lose them completely. A water element in the landscape is endlessly variable and unpredictable. The appearance of water is dependent on context (which is to say all aspects of the physical environment) almost entirely. Paradoxically, although a reflection is considered “unreal” compared to the real thing being reflected, observing reflections can give us greater knowledge of the environment than observing the thing itself. Everything is revealed: the atmospheric humidity, the speed of the air and the angle of the sun. Water reminds me of the liquid, dynamic quality of reality, how everything can and does change with a breath of wind.

Water is never alone, disconnected or singular and it can’t be painted as such. Even a waterfall has the company of the sky. Visually, to observe water in the landscape is to observe relationships. Every physical and energetic element makes an impact on the appearance of water and water, the bringer of both life and destruction, makes an impact on everything.

In this way, painting water teaches me to see and think in holistic terms. It reminds me that nothing can really be seen out of context and apart from its environment. Everything is a part of something greater and what we see is not one thing but a web of relationships that we and our paintings are part of.


Surface detail, pond series, early February