What I'm Reading Now


Daily Painting (2014), by Carol Marine, review and notes by Sean MaryHelen Johnson


"Overabundance," painting by  Carol Marine

"Overabundance," painting by Carol Marine

Artist Carol Marine called herself a “starving artist” before she finally took the advice she had long ignored, “paint everyday, or nearly everyday if you want to make a living as an artist.” I try to paint everyday, but I need a lot of inspiration to keep at it. So I’m reading her book. Maybe my notes will help you, too.

Marine is an oil painter but recommends her method for any medium. Here are the basic recommendations:

    1    Paint often and small. Daily painting means painting often or most days. She paints 6x6 most often, but anything you are comfortable with is fine as long as you can finish in an hour or two.

    2    Do a lot of work close together and you will learn more and feel more free to experiment. Set a goal of 500 paintings in 3 years (I think I could do it in less). If you plan to put in 10,000 hours for mastery don’t spread them out; do them close together so they can build on one another. Makes sense.

    3    Put your paintings online in a blog so you can see your work progress. Myself, I send my daily stuff to my Facebook page and/or Fine Art America website. I also have a website (http://www.cactusflowerstudio.com/) that sends my followers both places.

    4    She lists ideas for subjects and discusses ways to find them. Included are still lifes and flowers, landscapes including skyscapes and seascapes, animals, people including figurative, portraits, children, sports, cars and buildings including interiors and cityscapes, and abstracts. Both painting from life and from photos, Carol advocates, are fine with the caveat that the eye can see better than a camera. (I agree this is mostly true, but not entirely — sometimes the camera sees more than the eye can all at once and often captures color in interesting ways beyond what we ordinarily see.) Drawing and painting is an exercise in observation, but it is also one of simplification.

    5    Carol features a wide variety of artists who also give tips and advice about making painting into a daily exercise, selling online and recharging. Included are interesting exercises, e.g., do a self portrait by either looking in the mirror or taking some selfies, paint what you see not what you think.

    6    Carol also shares her daily routine which includes room for marketing and development alongside making art. She says when she’s not excited about painting, she takes time off and does a variety of other essential things for her art business, particularly focusing on refueling the creative fire when she feels this way. Limits are set by following this protocol when she works: 1) Call it work when you begin even if you’re not leaving the house; 2) turn off the computer; 3) no phone calls; 4) listen to music if it helps you get into the groove. Very practical stuff.

Materials: she uses two easels, one in her studio (one by David Sorg) (she uses a Sorg Super 8) and the other to travel or do plein air painting (ArtBox) (she uses mini version). She packs all her supplies in an Osprey Quantum backpack. Try this German backpack for travel and day tripping. She uses a tool cabinet on wheels from a home improvement store as a place to store supplies in her studio. She uses the top to keep her palette on. I can see this as an effective watercolor setup with some modifications. She mentions wet panel carriers from Raymar Art.

What she carries on the plane to travel: paints in a tupperware container inside a ziplock bag with a material safety data sheet (MSDS), which you should be able to get from your paint manufacturer on their website (this soothes the TSA). A PVC pipe container from ArtBox to store brushes. See German backpack above to double as travel carryon.

Value, color mixing, drawing and proportion, composition, painting with oils, resisting or recovering from artists’ block, and marketing are all covered succinctly. Briefly, here’s what I found valuable:

Value: “Squint” — tape this word where you can see it as a reminder to squint as you work. Value is most important aspect of composing the image. Locate 4–6 main values and then value map your composition with them. Divide values unevenly into dominant, secondary and smidge units. The dominant value will set the mood of the piece (dark+mid=drama and dark mood; mid+light=playful and light). Make sure your biggest contrast is at or near the focal point.

Color mixing: Colors have a value (light to dark) and a saturation (intense to dull/grey). Then there’s the color wheel: primaries=red, blue, yellow (very saturated); secondary=purple, orange, green (less saturated but still saturated); secondary+primary directly across color wheel, or the one you did not use to make the secondary=grey (unsaturated). She suggests going through your palette and learning how your colors “lean” — is your yellow (blue or red?, i.e., cool or hot). When painting with white, if it looks chalky, add yellow and/or red. Her palette: burnt umber, alizarin crimson and permanent rose, phthalo blue (the priceless troublemaker — just use a little, good for mixing turquoise), cadmium red medium, cadmium yellow light, ultramarine blue, white (Utrecht brand oils).

Drawing, proportion, perspective: Practice. Clean, confident marks. Carry your sketchbook; use it daily. Use a viewfinder (or take lots of pictures and edit them). Get big shapes and then see detail. Try painting on top of a value study. Generally heres checklist: ignore your brain and paint what you see; squint, check relative positions of things your drawing/painting, measure proportions with your brush, use viewfinder to get angles right (see negative space), use mirror to look at your drawing backwards (or take photo), back up, mentally zoom out and see big picture, forget what the subject is and look at the shapes and how they fit together, turn your work upside down, take a break and come back. See her trick for ellipses, p. 92. Books she recommends:

The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards

Your Artist’s Brain: Use the Right Side of Your Brain to Draw and Paint What You See — Not What You Think You See, by Carl Purcell

Composition: #1 Rule: Never make any two intervals of distance, length, spacing, and dimensions of shapes — the same. The human eye loves variety! This rule can be applied to color, saturation, soft and hard edges, direction and size of brush strokes, warm and cool colors, and just about anything else (more and less visual energy, transparency and opacity, paint thickness, etc). Listen to your instincts. If you break rules break them with gusto and confidence. Rule of thirds: divide panel into thirds horizontally and vertically and where the lines meet are the magic spots, which is consistent with the #1 rule — be inconsistent. She likes to think of her thirds as four quadrants and she avoids the middle, the edges, and even distances from the edges horizontally and vertically. In other words shake it up! No evenness or “balancing” — variety is key. Avoid “kissing” objects (go for overlapping); avoid rows of objects; avoid kissing the edges of the panel. Don’t make lines or other objects go directly out the corner. Avoid unfortunate tangents. Fixing something often means breaking something. Don’t make something like it appeared if its weird looking — change it. Odd # composing may be easier but it’s possible with even #s. Now forget the rules.

Her favorite composition book:

The Simple Secret to Better Painting: How to Immediately Improve Your Work with One Rule of Composition, by Greg Albert

Painting with oils: Most of what Marine has to say applies to alla prima oil painting for which I have little interest at the moment. But she does say some great things: There is no right way to paint. Question everything. Experiment constantly and learn what works for you. Don’t try to fix bad paintings. Just move on. Squint often to see values and saturated color. Compare everything to the extremes you see. They are the locators. See the “Playing with Edges” exercise, p. 128, and the “Four in Four” exercise, p. 113.

Artists’ Block: Just realize that things ebb and flow. When you need a break, take one. Use distractions and other things needing to be done to focus on if you are feeling burned out. Better yet, don’t go there. Rest and refuel the fire as needed to avoid the catastrophe of burning out. Read a book; take a workshop. Drink wine; eat chocolate. Do errands and personal grooming. All these can be part of refueling times. Don’t forget to add pleasure in your life. Have some fun. Play while you work. Don’t take it all so seriously. (Remember: Martyr vs. Trickster — be the Trickster!)

Marketing: Use promotionals to hand out wherever you go. Print a book of your best works, post cards, business cards. Get professional advice. Listen to Artists Helping Artists (hosted by Leslie Saeta) online radio (about selling art online). Read books (she recommends I’d Rather Be in the Studio, by Allison Stanfield which seems to be out of print at the moment). Put ads online (Facebook and Design Blogs). By ads in magazines like American Artist, Artist Mag, etc.). Participate in forums, blog regularly, start email list, use social media. Comment on other blogs. Trade links. Enter shows, contests, challenges. Make special offers (free shipping, free frame for first customer of the month, gift wrapping, buy one get one half off), have giveaways, donate to charity. Send out press releases. Hire a consultant (Leslie Saeta, Allison Stanfield).

Watercolorists featured (You probably know, this is where my interest lies) with links to them:

Joyce Washor

Belinda Del Pesco — (linocut and watercolor), a favorite, love her style.

Dean Shelton

Jacqueline Gnott

David Morris — Good painter.

Barbara Fox — Another one of my favorites. Amazing work.

Nora MacPhail — really cool sketchbook style and fun style.


by Sean MaryHelen Johnson

How do you begin to make art and what's important?  Most art books begin with a section on materials.  Most art workshops begin with a materials list.  But what is even more important than materials and composition and color, and all the categories you can think of about constructing a image or making art?  

You.  You are the source of the vision, the story, and the meaning behind the image.  You are the real impetus behind art making.  Your confidence level will affect the work you do and the ability to bring your vision into being.  So I will start with the basic of basics—YOU.

Everyday, a creative person must fight the fear that their vision, their art making is not important.   You must beat down the concepts that art is a waste of time.  Art is not valuable.  Art or being creative is just a playful pastime (although play is a good thing and not to be dismissed at work). No!  Art is healing and visionaries are a most important aspect of our culture and society.  Your contribution is important.  Even if you don't want to make art professionally, art is a way of recording your life and what you love.  If you have an urge to be creative in any way, you should follow it.  It will lead to a good space within.

Engaging in creativity is a journey of learning and enlightenment for anyone.  Creativity requires that we embrace core values and pursue becoming a more developed and realized person than when we began.  Dani Shapiro in her book, "Still Writing" states that courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness and the ability to deal with rejection are qualities that are required of writers.  See, http://danishapiro.com.  Writing, like any other creative pursuit including art making, requires that we be gentle with ourselves and allow ourselves to explore and practice before expecting to be able to make "good" art.  To practice faithfully, we must be willing to fail, and return again and again to the practice table.  We must be gentle with ourselves in order to build skills and confidence.

Our education system requires performance, not practice.  So you may be a little out of practice at practice.  Learning to draw, paint, and make images requires failing.  In school, we weren't supposed to fail, right?  In my family we were supposed to make As and Bs.  Cs, Ds, and Fs, weren't appreciated.  So we studied.  But studying isn't the same as practice.  Practice takes into account that failures are needed before we succeed.  Sometimes failures even lead the way to success.

So keep that in mind, and practice, practice, practice.  You might want to begin with seeingLet's see what one of my favorite artists, Charles Reid, has to say about seeing.  Mr. Reid says there are 3 ways of seeing:

    1.  Through contour or shape to emphasize a flat pattern or a linear quality.

    2.  Through rhythm or gesture to capture the spirit or essence of your subject.

    3.  Through broad masses of colors and values, using a lost-and-found quality to characterize your subject.

                From "Pulling Your Paintings Together" by Charles Reid. See, CharlesReidart.com

In a workshop I took with Mr. Reid, he said:  "The way you draw is the way you paint.  Let's just draw this once and then paint the same way."

So, to begin image making, we must start with seeing and drawing.  And to do that we must trust what we see, and our body's response, and our whole being to guide us through the process.  In seeing, we must simplify and focus.  In drawing we must allow our eyes to observe the subject and trust the hand-eye coordination to transfer to paper what we see.  In the beginning, your drawings will likely be less accurate than what you will be able to achieve if you practice daily or weekly.  

Here's a suggested process for those who don't believe they can draw or those of you that just want to get back into practicing:

  1. See what materials you have on hand.  Do you have a variety of pens, pencils, watercolors or other art supplies?  If so, get them all together in one place and make believe you are 3-5 years old again (this is where play and imagination come in).  Have fun.  Just see what marks you can make.  Make a mess.  Test the supplies you have on hand.
  2. Gather your favorite 3 tools together and set the rest aside.  Get a good sketchbook to work in—I recommend one with 140lb paper.  Strathmore makes a few in different sizes with 140lb paper which are inexpensive and good for journal keeping with drawing and painting.  Go ahead, get a second pocket size one and carry it around with you for a week and stop somewhere during your day for 10 mins and draw something you like.  See, CheapJoes.com —you can't beat Cheap Joes for supplies, although there are so many others that are great.
  3. Go to the kitchen table and get one object and draw it by carefully observing it and looking mostly at the object while you are drawing.  Use a good strong line and don't erase.  If you need to make a correction just draw over the lines with another good, strong line.
  4. Do this every morning for a week with the same object. 

Let me know how it turns out!  The drawing I did at the top, "Friends," shows you how far you can go with inaccuracy and still be reading the underlying message of the piece.  See you next week!

Image "Friends" and article above, copyright SMHJ2016, all rights reserved.  Contact cactusflower888@icloud.com for permission requests.  See SMHJ's website at:  www.cactusflowerstudio.com.

Prayer to the Muses

Sunflower Blowing in the Wind


Steven Pressfield, a writer I admire greatly, starts his work sessions with a prayer to the muses.  He uses Homer’s Prayer to the Muses from Homer’s Odyssey.  That prayer didn’t work for me, so I wrote one inspiring to me for my work days.  I share it here with you below.  Write your own or feel free to use mine or adapt it!


A Prayer to the Muses

By Sean MaryHelen Johnson

O Dear Muses, one and all, you mighty Creative Forces—

Guide me by your Wisdom and your Experience of the Ages in my efforts today.

Help me to be your Servant.  

Help me to hear your Voices within, and in all that is around me,

Help me to act out with strength, the Direction you give.  


I will do my best, but remember my shortfalls:

My chaotic mind and unstructured self, 

My shyness and tendency to introversion, 

My defensiveness, impatience, reactiveness, resistance, lack of self control, and so on.  

Help me to overcome these and other shortfalls and be faithful to your Calling.  


I have no conscious knowledge of ‘my calling’ other than what you send to me today.  

I have no idea where this is leading, but I trust you to reveal the steps I must take 

To come to the start of each creative project, 

To make it through the muddled middle stages to find and create its structure, 

And to bring to completion each project as directed by you.  


I am old enough so that I beseech you —

Send me Healing Energy to sustain my strength and the ability to do your Work.

Help me to care for my mind, my body, and my spirit.


I am grateful to you and All that Is for my life, and for your Presence and Guidance.  

Your Inspiration gives me strength and courage.  

Thank you, oh Divine Presence, Dear Gracious Muses.  

May I become more worthy daily through my loyalty to your Call.  


So Be It.      


Or if you prefer—

Here is Homer’s (the one Pressfield uses):

“O Divine Poesy, goddess, daughter of Zeus, sustain for me this song of the various-minded man who, after he had plundered the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy, was made to stay grievously about the coasts of men, the sport of their customs, good and bad, while his heart, through all the sea-faring, ached with an agony to redeem himself and bring his company safe home. Vain hope – for them. The fools! Their own witlessness cast them aside. To destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted Sun, wherefore the Sun-god blotted out the day of their return. Make this tale live for us in all its many bearings, O Muse.” – from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)” (Quote from Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art)

Find out more about Steven Pressfield at http://www.stevenpressfield.com.