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Finding my way as an artist

Thumbnails of BART view
Thumbnails of BART view

Who am I as an artist? What really interests me enough to spend hours painting it? Do I really like painting landscapes? Do I really like painting plein air? Do I even like looking at plein air landscape paintings?

After making 100 plein air landscape studies and only liking 2 of them, it seemed like a good time to reevaluate and those are the questions I’ve been asking myself.

Before I took up oils a year or so ago I was fascinated by details and enjoyed seeing and painting the reflections in glass, faces that told stories (human and non-human animals), the world inside a flower, urban scenes from around my quirky home town.

Then I started painting mostly plein air landscapes in oils and was told I needed to lose the details; simplify;  just paint the big shapes; soften the edges, go for design and composition rather than content. But the more I simplified the less I enjoyed painting. I started to question whether I wanted to continue with oil painting and plein air painting.

Then I serendipitously discovered a book of Charles Sheeler‘s paintings at a used book store. I’d never been much interested in his work before, but when I looked at the images and started reading I was led to the answers I’d been looking for. I saw in his landscapes (mostly urban/industrial), still lifes and interior scenes a specificity, strong point of view, personality, AND great design. I saw a way I could translate what gave me joy in watercolor into my oil painting.

I realized that what interests me is the PARTICULAR, not the general; the close up, personal view that tells a story; a portrait of an object, a person or a place; not the general widescreen view as I’ve been doing.

In trying to better define my thoughts, while waiting for my train at the at the El Cerrito Plaza BART station I sketched the thumbnails at the top and bottom of this post (which can be enlarged by clicking either image).  Below is a photo of the scene, though a slightly different point of view:

Photo of similar view from BART
Photo of similar view from BART minus foreground

And here is what I discovered and wrote in my sketchbook, thumbnail by thumbnail:

1: No focus, BORING. What I’ve been doing: including every single detail from the window frame in the foreground to the cars, parking lot, city, bay, hills across the bay, and the sky.

2. A little more interesting. Focus on the Cerrito Theatre marquis sticking up with foreground and background being less important.

3. A close up view but no focal point, still boring. 3 trees. Who cares?

4. BORING. Sky mountain water. Big Fat So What!

5. Maybe… a portrait of specific trees and lamp post but still not interesting enough to bother painting.

6. Now this interests me! A person waiting, a bench, a sign, a particular tree.

Thumbnails of BART view
Thumbnails of BART view

Now I just hope I can find a way to implement this new way of viewing and painting with oil paints. I wrote several more pages about these ideas in my sketchbook, but I’ve probably bored you enough for today. Now off to paint!

14 replies on “Finding my way as an artist”

Good to do something different. I like your simplified flat kind of landscapes but it’s good also to try and look at details and focus of something in particular. Way to go.


I’m fascinated by this monologue you are having with yourself as you sort out your ideas about your personal passions. And I can’t wait to see how you resolve these ideas and move on with your study of oil painting. Your watercolors always made me feel the passion – and I have confidence you’ll find it as you explore your focus again with a second medium.

Thanks Shirley. I like the way you described this as a monologue with myself, an interesting concept. I appreciate your vote of confidence too.


And here I find you again, teaching me from afar! I find so much to ponder in my own art when you open up and share your struggles and thoughts as an artist. Your series of sketches gave me a lot of food for thought also. Thanks for sharing! You’ll find YOUR way with oils, I have no doubt!


I’m so honored that you all have taken your precious time to read my ramblings and to leave comments for me. It’s so rewarding to be able to share a dialogue about art with you and to know that I’m not alone on this path! Thanks!


I think you’re fascinated by the particular, too, and the freedom it gives you to rearrange the world around it. Makes me think of Wallace Steven’s poem, “Anecdote of the Jar”, where a jar set on a hill organizes the whole world around it–“it took dominion everywhere”–and you know that if the jar were moved, the whole world would change. You always approach detail very lovingly and even reverently, I think.

Chloe, I so appreciate your thoughtful and literate comments. How amazing that my words and pictures remind you of a poem. I’m going to look this one up. I don’t know too much about poetry, but I know there’s another Wallace Stevens poem I fell in love with once. I’m going to have to explore further! ~Jana


More… Remember your recent painting of the roses in the glass jar? You seemed to spend more time on the jar than the roses. You could almost call it, “Portrait of a bottle, with roses.”

You are so right! ~Jana


Interesting analysis. Truthfully, after watching your work for as long as I have, it’s your ‘particular’ stuff that most attracts me. And your live people sketches. But I love that you explore new directions and show them to us.

Andrea, it’s really thrilling to me to think over you has having been watching my work! ~Jana


Jana, this is such an exciting development. I bet that now you don’t want to sleep or eat, and spend all your time drawing and painting. This period of unsucessful work could have otherwise turned into a negative spiral, and a long period of not painting at all. Thank God you had the courage to question what you were doing, and the clarity and inspiration to find the answers ytou never knew were there.

Steph, You’re soooo right! I passed up a chance to go away for the weekend so I could stay home and paint and had so much fun! ~Jana


Jana, I always enjoy looking at and reading your blog. This last entry made me want to leave a reply because I have recently taken up plein air painting, and have been asking myself the same questions you have asked yourself. Thank you for your thoughts; they help me clarify my own.

Thanks so much for your comment. I’ve just started another post to say more about plein air painting but probably won’t finish it until next weekend. I just visited your website and was blown away! Your cartoons and illustrations are amazing (and funny!) I loved the Clapton/Layla cartoon and your clever and charming illustrations. Your work is really inspiring! ~Jana


This is an absolutely fascinating discussion you’re having here! I agree absolutely that it’s the particular and not the general that lends interest to a painting, as it does to writing or I guess any art form. What’s interesting in some landscapes is the way some painters manage to capture the moment, the light, the season… I’ve loved watching you develop as an oil painter, having already been a big fan of your watercolors.
On another subject, we may be going to San Francisco in the spring – any chance of a sketch crawl?

Hi Casey. Oooh how exciting! Yes of course, I’d love to meet up with you in SF this spring. I’m afraid I’m not quite the hostess as Laura (no grand dinner parties at my humble abode) but getting a chance to meet you and hang out and sketch would be great!

Thanks for pointing out about how in some landscapes the particular is the specific moment in time and of light that is captured. Interestingly, in the book I’m reading about Sheeler, it says that he studied with Chase who specialized in just that (and my painting teacher who also specializes in that studied with Hensche who was the student of Hawthorne who was the apprentice of Chase). But then he moved away from capturing the moment and and got more interested in capturing the details of the scene itself.

I’m a fan of yours too, of course and always hungrily enjoy my visits to your exquisite scenes of life in France. Keep me posted on your travel schedule.


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