Tag Archives: oil painting

Treat yourself with compassion

I’m finally painting again, thanks to a lesson in self-compassion that I received after attending my third seminar (out of four required) in UT’s Human Dimensions of Organization “Thinking Smarter” certificate program on November 13. I’m hoping to guest blog for HDO’s In the Loop as I have in the past, so I’ll hold off revealing all the reasons why the latest course – Behavior Change and Influence – had such an impact that I picked up my paintbrush in earnest again.

The course is based on instructor Art Markman’s new book, Smart Change. I recommend picking up or downloading this book now and using the Thanksgiving holiday to begin working through it. You’ll be more than prepared for the desire and pressure that arrives every December to develop and activate New Year’s goals if you start now.

Dr. Markman opened the class with a truth we all intuitively know: We are sent out into the world after college to think and motivate and influence without knowing a thing about psychology – how minds work, how people think, and why they behave in certain ways. The premise of these HDO seminars is that we would live better lives if we knew how our minds work. Understanding how my mind works got me motivated to paint again.

There are many reasons why it’s been hard for me to paint the last year, but they boil down to the fact that I acquired new habits during and after my mom’s fight with pancreatic cancer, which also coincided (in the same month) with the end of my art classes as my instructor Michael moved to Kansas City. Dr. Markman explained that our brains are designed to spend as little time thinking as possible. So when my environment changed drastically with my mom’s illness and the end of art classes, my behavior changed with it. No classes meant no set time to create art. And as I dealt with the stress of my mother’s illness, I couldn’t find the energy or joy to paint.

Not painting became the new habit, and so it’s been for a year, as I fell into what Dr. Markman calls the “what-the-hell effect”. We’ve all been there: this is where you elevate the failure of a specific accomplishment (“I didn’t show up to the easel again today”) to the status of the failure of an entire contribution (“I can’t be an artist”).

Dr. Markman’s class and his book helped me see that the path to changing my behavior is straightforward but not easy. He also helped me see that I need to have more self-compassion. I must look at my failure to paint the last year as a combination of things that were out of my control and the actions that I took or chose not to take, not as an assumption that there’s something fundamentally wrong with me or my ability.

Study of Georges Rouault's Head of Christ, oil on canvas, 36" x 24"

Study of Georges Rouault’s Head of Christ, oil on canvas, 36″ x 24″

I’ll write more about the lessons of Smart Change in future posts. But today, I want to close with the message of self-compassion and encourage my readers to reflect on it, along with gratitude, this Thanksgiving holiday. In deciding to treat myself with compassion as I make my way back to the easel, I chose the most compassionate subject there is for my new painting.

This week, I completed a study of George Rouault’s Head of Christ. The blogger The Ohio Expressionist was lucky enough to see the original up close. He remarked, “Rouault’s Christ looks me in the eyes until he finally has my attention, and says, ‘I suffer with you. I love you.'” Regardless of your religious beliefs, I hope that you enjoy my study of this beautiful painting and that the message of self-compassion resonates with you this holiday. Happy Thanksgiving.

Dusting off the paintbrushes

It’s been four months since my last post. Thank you for standing by, dear readers. My last post was about caregiving, and when I wrote it, I felt confident I could return to painting while my mom lived with me and fought pancreatic cancer. That wasn’t to be the case, as the roller coaster of this blasted disease continued until the end of the year, and it was enough I could do to maintain my work ethic at my day job (which I love) and raise my now teenage daughter (oy!), while being there for my mom. The canvases continued to sit idle as did my participation in social media. It was worth it. Our family has been truly blessed. My mom finally did recover from the surgery known as the “Whipple”, one of the most complex surgeries there is, and she now is undergoing chemotherapy with only one side effect – fatigue. We are filled with hope that the scan after her treatment will show she’s beaten this disease. It’s been a miraculous process.

My parents found a terrific rental in my neighborhood last month and have settled in nicely. It’s wonderful to have them so close, and I know everyone is grateful to have their own space again. I’ve recovered from the stress and exhaustion, and I reverted the room they occupied in my home back into an art studio. It is time to dust off the paintbrushes and get to work on the six large blank canvases that are sitting there waiting for me to bring them to life.

This is HARD. I haven’t held a paintbrush in seven months, and my art instructor Michael Schliefke moved away to Kansas City. I’m on my own. I know I can do this, but getting started is harder than I thought it would be. I’ve started planning three paintings and have been thinking about the subjects, the palette I’m going to use, and the technique I’m going to use. I have simplified my environment, decluttering and removing possessions and activities that don’t spark joy to leave the space and the time for the those that do. (For more on this, I recommend a powerful book by Marie Kondo called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. This is not your typical organizational self-help book; it is about changing your relationship with your stuff.)

My environment is ready. I’m ready. But I haven’t actually begun creating anything yet. So I find myself here, writing to you, to put the motivation and accountability in place to get moving. My goal is to complete six paintings by the end of November and host an event in my home to show them in early December. There. Now that I have stated this goal out loud to others, I feel motivated and accountable to follow through and complete six paintings in nine months.

To remind myself what it felt like to be motivated in my art and to reawaken the determination to create, I wanted to share the last painting I completed right before my mother’s diagnosis.  It’s a study of Ben Fenske’s “Johanna Fixing her Skirt.” I enjoyed painting this very much and created it on my own with no instruction from Michael.

Have you ever had to proclaim a goal and ask for accountability in order to get motivated to start or follow through on your goal?

Johanna Fixing her Skirt, oil on canvas, 8" x 10"

Johanna Fixing her Skirt, oil on canvas, 8″ x 10″

Mercado de San Miguel

The San Miguel market is located in the heart of Madrid’s tourist center, right next to the Plaza Mayor. Completed in 1916, it is the only surviving iron structure market in Madrid today, having been rescued from abandonment and disrepair by a group of investors in 2003 who restored and reopened it in 2009 and adapted it to the the 21st century. By day, the market is a bustling venue for vendors offering fish, produce, cheese, bread, pastries, and cafes to enjoy a mid-afternoon cortado. By night….correction, this is Spain after all:  By day and night – it’s a collection of beer and wine bars where one can enjoy tapas such as tortilla española, fried shrimp, and tuna while sipping your beverage of choice.

At any time, the mix of locals with tourists makes for some fantastic people-watching, and the overall experience is overwhelming as you squeeze (or in my case, push) your way through the crowds and go station to station ogling the food and sampling the tapas, all while trying to figure out a plan of attack to try everything and see everything and stay on budget. The experience engages all the senses: the smells of the food, the noise and bustle of the crowd, the sight of the beautiful produce, the feel of the water droplets in the air (green A/C), and the taste of the jamón ibérico.

I give you this backdrop because my close friend P, who has so far inspired five of my paintings with his incredible photographs, captured a very different view of Mercado San Miguel – a calmer, more peaceful one that reminded me how beautiful the light can be in Spain. I don’t know what time of day the photograph was taken, but the light is strong, coming from a high position in the sky. The shopping rush is over and it’s not café or tapas time either. I’m guessing the photograph was taken soon after lunch (la comida, at 2 PM), around 3:30 or 4:00 PM.


Mercado de San Miguel © Paul K. Brookshire

I wanted to paint the scene not just for the different view of Mercado de San Miguel that it represented, but also because I knew I needed more experience working with such strong lights and darks (value). I faced three challenges in translating this beautiful photograph to the canvas. First, the photograph depicts a clear foreground, middle ground, and background. To depict that with oil, I would need to ensure correct use of shades within my chosen palette in the correct places on the canvas. Second, I had to be patient to build up the bright light in the background so that it wouldn’t just be a stark white glob. Third, I entered a period of intense creativity, tight deadlines, and a hectic travel schedule at my day job that made consistent studio work difficult.


Mercado de San Miguel – Oil on Canvas, 24″ x 36″

The process of bringing P’s photograph to the canvas was interrupted and inconsistent over a three-month period, but I am pleased with the results. I think the long breaks between working on it may have even helped, as they gave me time to think about my subject and study my progress to understand what I had to do the next time I made it to the studio. It also gave me time to reflect on my memories of the lazy Spanish post-comida hours, that sleepy, relaxed time when Spain slows down so much it is unrecognizable from the morning bustle. I hope, dear readers, that you enjoy this piece as much as I enjoyed creating it and thank you for letting me share it with you.



I write about the creative process and its importance, but, I have to say, stepping back from a completed painting is such a joy.  In my post Confronting a disappointing piece, I described how I was determined to get my painting mojo back during the summer by taking a break from a difficult work that wasn’t going very well to start a new painting.  Last week I finished Onward, a 24″ x 32″ oil on canvas landscape, inspired by a photo taken by my friend P on a recent trip to Chiloe, Chile.

Onward, oil on canvas, 24″ x 32″ © 2013 Teresa de Onis

I was asked two questions about this painting:

Chiloe, Chile – © 2013 Paul Brookshire

Why did you pick that photo?  First, the composition of the scene is beautiful.  The scene is quite pleasing to the eye as your gaze moves from the grass at left, to the boat and jutting island on the right, up the mast, and then to the upper left. The dawn light in the photograph was also very beautiful, and I felt that it would be a challenge for me to paint the way the light reflected off the water.  I was also very eager to paint mountains for the first time.  I found painting the water quite easy, but it was a challenge to make the mountains appear further away.  I struggled a little with that, until Michael, my instructor, suggested I use purples for the mountains.  I squealed with delight because Michael HATES purple, and I was FINALLY going to be able to get to use it after three years of studying under him with no purple allowed.  It was a great decision that worked.

In addition to the opportunity to continue to learn technique, I was drawn to the significance of the boat.  It looked like it wanted to be on the water, as if yearning to launch, to move forward, to just “go”.  I tried very hard to convey that emotion, the desire to get out on the water, to move forward with purpose, with my brushstrokes.  The day I focused on painting the boat was one of my best painting days to date.  I felt so confident and sure of myself as I worked that part of the painting.  I painted the mast at the very end, which brings me to the second question I got asked last week.

How did you know it was finished?  I think artists get asked this a lot.  The answer for me on this painting was that I knew it wouldn’t be finished until I put the mast in, but I couldn’t do that until the painting was completed.  I guess the best answer is “you just know.” Michael has taught me to step back from my paintings often while I’m working.  As you step back and your eye wanders, you can see which areas need work and which don’t.  I stepped back from the painting on Wednesday and couldn’t really see anything that I needed to change or enhance, so it was time to put in the mast.  I think the mast makes the painting. It would have been incomplete without it, from a composition perspective and from an emotional perspective.

I will return to class tonight and don’t know what I will undertake there yet.  The irony of the title Onward is not lost on me as I debate whether I will move forward with the difficult painting I had abandoned, or whether I will continue to let it sit unfinished a while longer and start another new one.  I have a few hours to decide what “onward” means for me today.  Stay tuned and thank you for reading!

Confronting a disappointing piece

For almost three years now, I’ve been watching my art of oil painting unfold smoothly.  Until now.  I hit an unexpected wall on a painting I had been working on for three months.  This occurrence is so common among artists that it is practically cliché, yet I am struggling  to not view this as a failure.

For weeks now, I’ve been confronting this painting and attempting to interpret a photograph of something very worthy and very personal on the canvas with my oils.  It has been a battle and I am disappointed in the piece.  I began the painting with excitement and confidence.  Yet every visit to the canvas the last few weeks has been a mixed bag of victory and failure.  One moment I say “Yes, that’s it!”, while the next I stand back and just shake my head, chastising myself for the mistakes I just made.  I have heard myself even try to disown it:  “Well, the composition has been off since the sketch.”  “I shouldn’t have used that much burnt sienna.” “That’s not what I meant to do.” “Michael [my instructor] isn’t correcting me.”

As David Bayles and Ted Orland say in their book Art and Fear, “…your art is not some residue left when you subtract all the things you haven’t done – it is the full payoff for the things you have done.  One might as well wish for indulgence to go back and pick better numbers for last week’s lottery.”  In other words, what I did on the canvas got me to this place, and if I keep doing the same things, I am likely to keep getting the same results.  Where have we as artists and marketers heard that before?  I was working smoothly before, but now I’m stuck, so chances are that I altered something that was working well.

With the gracious and patient help of a loved one, I was able to talk through this to figure out what was altered.  I take photographs of my works in progress, so flipping through the iterations was a huge help also.  Two reasons emerged for the rift between my vision and what is on the canvas.  One is environmental, the other is entirely of my own doing.

Let’s tackle the environmental one first, because I need your help, readers.  Michael, for reasons outside of his control, moved out of the studio from which I’d been learning and working for the last 3 years.  The new studio is much smaller, does not have air conditioning (this is Texas…..it’s June), and is located at double the driving distance.  The space is shared with other artists, so we can’t turn up the music the way we like (the way I need?).  In short, the physical environment where I make art has changed.

While the change in scenery and space seems to have lit a fire under Michael – he is working on over a dozen beautiful paintings for a show opening on July 13 – it has affected me negatively.  As I wrote in this post, the practical details of art-making are very important.  This single practical, private detail – the familiar, friendly, safe, fun, music-filled surroundings of Michael’s old studio – seems to be very important to me.  His old studio was my hearth and home, where I’ve learned, discovered, and grown for almost three years.  This ritual wasn’t visible or even knowable until now.  Unfortunately, I can’t reverse this one and return to the old studio – how I wish I could!

So, dear readers, do you have any suggestions for how I can acclimate to the new surroundings?  Have you ever had your work affected by such a change in environment?  If so, what did you do?

Second, somehow, without realizing it, about halfway through this painting I altered my approach to it.  Instead of concentrating on value, shadows, and shapes, I became fixated on the details in the photograph.  The result was disappointing:  very precise, hard lines, overly-blended paint, flat surfaces, little contrast between foreground and background, and an exaggerated use of one color that led to one element popping off the canvas.  All of these are contrary to my impressionistic style of capturing the essence and movement of the subject – NOT the details – through visible brush strokes, emphasis on lights and darks, and soft edges.  Michael was vocal about this, and I heard him, yet I kept making the same errors.  The painting does not look like one of my paintings and displays a clear lack of concentration.

While I know I altered my schema, I don’t know why.  Why did I focus on details all of a sudden?  Does it relate to the first reason, the change in environment and lack of concentration?  I’m not sure.  By the time I stepped back from the canvas on Sunday evening, I knew I had to do things differently moving forward.  Fearful I would take a huge brush loaded with pthalo blue and swipe it across the canvas out of frustration – to put it and me out of our misery – I decided to set the painting aside indefinitely.  I think the best strategy now is to start a new painting right away – one where I carefully and consciously return to my good habits and practices, and regain confidence and concentration.  I’m also counting on you and am confident you’ll give me some great tips to address the change in my learning environment.

It will be interesting to see which painting winds up on this blog first.

The one certainty in making art

A few posts ago, I wrote about letting go of uncertainties in art-making.  Like most, I keep bumping into this difficulty, and my lizard brain has recently been prone to such thoughts as “is this what I want to be painting right now?” or “what will my new boss think of this idea?” or “will anyone even read this post?”  I’ve often found that turning around a problem and looking it at from the opposite angle can yield valuable answers.  So I asked myself, “Is there anything that is certain in my art-making?”

The answer is YES.  My materials.

Having the right materials and tools for the job is a basic need in any artistic or work endeavor.  In their book First, Break all the Rules, Buckingham and Coffman found through a Gallup poll of managers that having the materials and tools a person needs to do their work right is the second-most fundamental need after “do I know what is expected of me at work?” I think in art-making, it jumps to first place.  Whether you are a writer, carpenter, sculptor, jewelry-maker, tailor, hair stylist, graphics designer, architect, or make-up artist, your materials can directly impact the experience you have in your art-making.  Your materials are the bridge between the ideas in your head and the art you end up creating.

Three years ago, armed with the list my art instructor Michael had given me, I showed up at the art supply store ready to buy my materials.  I’ll equate the experience to being just as wonderful as a Nordstrom shoe sale, and it still is.  [Have I mentioned how much I love Jerry’s Artarama gift cards? Hint hint to my friends….my birthday is in May. <snicker>]  The list Michael had given me was short – a few brushes and a limited palette of paint colors – but I spent three hours browsing and studying all the supplies.  Easels, canvases, brushes, paint, palettes, turpentine, linseed oil, palette knives – I wanted all of it.  But I knew so little, that I stuck to Michael’s list.

Over the last three years, my materials have become more sophisticated and I’ve become more picky about what I use to paint as my response to what I was using became more personal with the experience I gained.  In fact, my relationship with my materials is becoming deeply personal as I realize my potential through them:   they respond – or sometimes resist – and this drives me to do something on the canvas.

Over time, I have upgraded to longer, higher-quality brushes.  I started having Michael build and stretch and prep my canvases instead of using store-bought ones.  And I migrated to artist-grade oil paints.  These investments mean I have also begun taking better care of my materials.  As soon as I’m done painting, I clean my brushes.  One needs lukewarm water, mild soap, and lots of patience.  Cleaning 2-4 brushes can sometimes take up to 30 minutes. There’s something cathartic and nurturing about standing at the sink and removing the oil and pigment from the brushes.  I know that a job well done will make the paint glide on next time I’m at the easel and that the brushes will last longer, so I’m motivated to get them clean. A few weeks ago, when I got sick with the flu, I felt so badly that I didn’t wash my brushes when I got home from Michael’s studio.  They sat in my art bag for five days while I lay sick in bed, and the paint encrusted in the bristles to the point I had to throw two brushes out.  It’s the equivalent of sleeping with your make-up on for days…..ick.  

The certainty that my tools will do what my hands make them do is the only certainty in art-making.  I can control the paints and palette I use.  I can choose the canvas size and quality on which to apply the paint. I can take care of my brushes to get the best possible use out of them.  I can choose the medium that will best help apply and spread the paint.  As David Bayles and Ted Orland write in their book Art and Fear:  “Art is about carrying things out, and materials are what can be carried out.  Because they are real, they are reliable.  Your materials are, in fact, one of the few elements of art-making you can reasonably hope to control.”  Everything else is flavored with uncertainty.

How about you?  Tell me about your relationship with your tools and materials.

The incomparable Georges Rouault

“Anyone can revolt.  It is more difficult silently to obey our own inner promptings, and to spend our lives finding sincere and fitting means of expression for our temperament and our gifts.”     – Georges Rouault, 1871-1958

My favorite artists for as long as I can remember have been the Spanish masters – Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, Picasso.  One of the reasons for this favoritism is my Spanish origin and heritage.  Another is that I was privileged from a very young age to see their masterpieces over and over in person on our summer trips to Spain, not just in art books and documentaries.  These experiences  instilled a love of art and a desire to educate myself further on art history.  I took two classes in college and have always made it a priority to visit museums on trips to any major city.  I felt I had a very good understanding of art and of the best artists.

I was therefore humbled when Michael, my art instructor, introduced me to an artist I had never heard of, Georges Rouault (1871-1958), and suggested I do a study of one of his paintings.  As I described in previous posts here and here, I’ve been working on a study of Rouault’s The Old King.  His influence on Michael’s work was immediately obvious to me, and the more I worked on The Old King, the more I was in awe of this little known, yet extraordinary, painter.  So I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about him through the process of studying his masterpiece. I would also like to share my completed study of The Old King at the close of this post.

It turns out that at one time, Rouault’s reputation was on par with Matisse’s, and he was extremely popular in the 40’s and 50’s in the aftermath of WWII.  He was so beloved at his death at 87 that France entered into national mourning and he was given a state funeral.  Then he somehow slipped out of favor and was labeled an “acquired taste.”  The New York Times recently said, “The art has a sanctimony and sincerity that resonated after the war but came to seem dated in an art world besotted by American Pop and bling.”  His paintings have been labeled gentle, religious, tender, moral, and peculiar.  Having studied his painting The Old King for weeks now, I feel like I must do my tiny part to help the art community continue to restore Rouault to a rightfully respected place in modern art.

Rouault worked as a stained-glass restorer as a young man, and this influence on his paintings is evident in the thick black lines and glowing colors against atmospheric backgrounds.  These luminous colors and incredible lines give his paintings an expressiveness and richness that I personally experienced as I studied his work. It takes time – and a lot of paint – to build these thick layers of dense color on the canvas.  I read that Rouault never felt his paintings were truly finished, and I understand that now.  I could have kept on building up color for weeks on my study. 

Rouault - Cristo e gli Apostoli                  

He also trained in the French fine-arts academy, but his works don’t really look like anyone else’s from his generation.  He was deeply religious and saw his art as a way to explore spiritual and human truths.  His depictions of prostitutes, judges, criminals, and the poor shocked critics, while he strove to portray “a God so moving that those who see him will convert.”

His art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, made a deal with him in 1917:  for providing Rouault with financial security and a studio in his home, Vollard got hundreds of paintings, most of them unfinished.  When Vollard died suddenly in 1939, his heirs locked Rouault out of his studio, forcing him to sue to get his paintings back.  He had always been very concerned with artists’ rights over their creations, writing, “I sometimes dream, in these last years of my life, of upholding a thesis at the Sorbonne on the spiritual defense of works of art and the artist’s rights before the law, and the ways and means of securing these rights, so that those who come after us may be better protected.“   It took nine years, but at the age of 77, he won the lawsuit, which I learned was a landmark case in artist’s property rights, and he recovered over 800 paintings.

Knowing that at his advanced age he could never finish all the paintings, he burned 315 of them before witnesses.  Today the estimated worth of those lost paintings is $500 million.

Some believe his act was not symbolic or profound, that he just knew he wouldn’t finish the paintings, so why leave them lying around?  Another, more romantic theory, is that after the lengthy legal battle and years lost, he wanted to show that only he controlled his work.  He was very popular when his paintings went up in smoke and he could have made a fortune.  Instead, maybe he was teaching a moral lesson in the true value of art.

I’m very grateful to have been introduced to Rouault and to have studied The Old King.  I have no doubt that I will continue to explore his art and that he will influence my work moving forward.

How about you?  Is there someone (artist, writer, poet, performer) unknown to the masses who has influenced you?

Study of Rouault's The Old KingOil on Canvas, 30" x 24"

Study of Rouault’s The Old King
Oil on Canvas, 30″ x 24″

Sources:  Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault by Stephen Schloesser; Revisiting Rouault’s Stained-Glass World by Michael Kimmelman for the NYT; Carnegie Museum of Art website (www.cmoa.org); Fondation Georges Rouault website (www.rouault.org)

Note to my readers:  Part 2 on Creativity as Competitive Advantage will publish next week.