Category Archives: Art in General

What is Notan?

Notan is a Japanese word that means dark-light. The principle of Notan, however, means much more than that. It is the interaction between positive and negative space. The ancient symbol of Yin and Yang is probably the most widely known Notan. The positive and negative areas make a whole through a unity of opposites. The Notan’s practical applications are for the design in painting. Understanding Notan will enable us to create value masses, tension, movement, and symmetry in our work.

A tone of grey between two value extremes (i.e. ,black and white) changes their relations and opens up a new field for creative activity. Here we think of Notan as the values of one tone against the another.

The set of three values is the basis of drawings, mezzo tint, aquatint etc. From there it is an easy step to many values. It is an exercise of great value (pun intended) to draw or paint a landscape with three values: white, black and grey.

Understanding Notan can help identify the most interesting and dominant shapes. It will also help identify the correct values and therefore create a stronger painting. Art sources to check out are Japanese Notan designs, the artists Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and Piet Mondrian, among others.

I recommend reading Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design (Dover Art Instruction) by Dorr Bothwell, Marlys Mayfield (1991).

I also recommend doing value studies before painting as it is the same exercise in determining value masses and their interaction = Notan! Other examples of strong Notan in representational art: Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Self-portrait at an early age” and James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1” (Whistler’s mother).


Best of 2017…quote, unquote.

Here are some of the most liked paintings I did last year. At least according to Instagram. The whole social media circus is strange to me, because it is tempting to actually believe that these are also my ‘best paintings’.  Often I post something and think ‘this is a real good painting’ and almost get no response. Other times I post something I think is mediocre and, voila, it’s a total hit! I have kind of given up analyzing the whole thing.

Happy New Year to everyone who is interested in my art and comes to my blog. Let’s focus on the real reasons we are creating! Remember why your are an artist in this fake world of ‘likes’. Remember the reason why you paint and look through all the bullshit! Put your phone down and take in the world with your senses.

Let’s all try to spread kindness, reach out to help others and make up for the lack of empathy and compassion in this world.




What is a good painting?

In my last blog post I have talked about how painting can be compared to music. Personal taste is ultimately the reason why an individual likes a painting or a song. Good art, bad art? Who’s to judge? What’s great to one person may be horrible to another. In music, there are people who love endless jazz solos and others would want to run screaming out of the room if they were exposed to it. There may be paintings that I like a lot and someone else hates them. Overall, I think that’s natural.

But there is some music and some art almost everyone can love, maybe Mozart? Paintings by Sorolla, or more contemporary, Dali? Ancient Notan art of the Japanese and Chinese. In other words, there is a consensus where most of us feel the same way about something. To take it further, most people would agree that Audrey Hepburn was a beautiful woman. So there is almost like a standard for what’s beautiful.

How would that apply to painting? I think, ultimately, it comes down to the personal style of any given artist. The artist’s personality that has its presence in their work. We can see it. Sometimes you look at some painting and you just know, that’s a Sargent or a Zorn! The masters have their own distinctive style. It is *their* own personal vision of beauty that we pick up on and it resonates within us.

Nature by itself is not art per se, it is what the artist expresses when they paint her that becomes art. A painting that has the mood of a landscape is more powerful than one where the artists tries to paint every leaf on a tree.

Art and music are also influenced by the aesthetics of a people and societies in general. Sense of beauty and taste also changes with time, although some art and music is ‘timeless’. Landscape painting is timeless, I think, because we as human beings come from nature. It is in our DNA. In music, the classics like Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin etc etc. are still liked and listened to today even though their music was written hundreds of years ago.


People who have met me know I’m not exactly fond of social media, but the appeal of Instagram is its dedication to the visual and minimal words. Given that I’m not exactly a gifted wordsmith, I’m all for it. This year I thought I’d give Instagram a decent chance. And by decent chance I mean no more unfocused, badly-cropped pictures and half-assed captions. I would post sharp, nicely-cropped, squared-up paintings, make engaging captions, and even work in some clever hashtags. (Ha.) To dig a deeper hole, I vowed to post frequently, thus creating #52artworksin52weeks.

So far I’m up to #06of52, which happens to be this. Parents, I’m sure you’re all familiar with that look on her face!


And mind-bogglingly, #01of52 happens to be the most popular. Really. And it occurred to me: am I in the right genre? Should I be painting more animal portraits, less landscapes? More bichons, less barns? Someone thinks so. (Still waiting for AWS, TWSA, NWS, and CAC on their input…)


Last year, people were really drawn to these San Luis Obispo county landscapes. Central California is gorgeous, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking of doing a local workshop here… Watercolors and Wine. Or should it be Wine and Watercolors?


Finally, this city scene from Florence brings back some good memories… I conducted workshops in Tuscany in 2013 and 2015, and will be back again this year.


If you’re on Instagram, please drop by and say Hello! Hold my feet to the fire and make sure I get to #52of52! (And thanks for all your support.)

A week in beautiful Maine

I was very fortunate to teach a workshop in Belfast, ME with Coastal Maine last week. Having been busy with workshops in Wisconsin and Norway lately, I was not thrilled on boarding another long distance flight but when I got there I immediately forgot about it and couldn’t wait to start painting!

Belfast is a seaside town about two hours northeast of Portland. It boasts a busy downtown area with some great restaurants, sparkling bays with iconic lighthouses and a great harbor to paint. Maine is not named “Vacationland” for nothing! Even while teaching I felt like I am on permanent vacation! People are friendly but not overly so (which I like!) and everything seems slower paced. Nobody’s rushing…

Places to see are Belfast, Camden and Rockland. I am sure there’s a lot more but that’s all I had time to see. It will just take another trip!

One of the highlights for me was to see the Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center in Rockland. The museum offers an opportunity to enjoy a comprehensive collection of American art related to Maine and above all, a big collection of works by the late Andrew Wyeth! I really like his art so I couldn’t wait to go! The Wyeth Center houses a collection related to three generations of Wyeths in Maine: N.C, Andrew and Jamie. The entrance fee is waived on Wednesdays!

Why paint…

To continue with the musings about growing and evolving as an artist, I happen to come across a website about poetry that posted a letter by one of my favorite poets Rainer Maria Rilke. It is one of a collection of 10 letters written by the famous poet RMR (1875-1926) to a young officer cadet at the Military Academy in Vienna, who wanted Rilke to critique the quality of his poetry so he could decide whether a literary career made sense for him. The correspondence lasted from 1902 to 1908

I decided to include this because in his first letter, Rilke’s comments really hit home with me and it can be directly applied to the art of painting. It is as if he wrote this yesterday where in fact the letter dates back to 17 February 1903 in Paris!!

Read this excerpt and replace the word ‘poem’ with ‘painting’ and ‘writer’ with ‘painter’. The interesting thing to me is to compare it to social media today where so many artists post their paintings in hopes to get ‘likes’, in other words, looking outwards for recognition and approval. Nothing has changed! We just don’t send physical letters anymore. (Emphasis in italics is mine.)

“You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.

There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.

Then draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose.

If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty—nothing is insignificant or unimportant.
If, as a result of this turning inward, of this sinking into your own world, poetry should emerge, you will not think to ask someone whether it is good poetry. And you will not try to interest publishers of magazines in these works. For you will hear in them your own voice; you will see in them a piece of your life, a natural possession of yours. A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity. This, its source, is its criterion; there is no other.

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question, whether you must write. Accept it, however it sounds to you, without analyzing. Perhaps it will become apparent to you that you are indeed called to be a writer. Then accept that fate; bear its burden, and its grandeur, without asking for the reward, which might possibly come from without. For the creative artist must be a world of his own and must find everything within himself and in nature, to which he has betrothed himself.
It is possible that, even after your descent into your inner self and into your secret place of solitude, you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. As I have said, to feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not.”

Interesting stuff, isn’t it! I encourage you to read the whole letter here.

Aspirations of an artist

‘Nowhere in the world of art education has technique been so foolishly substituted for true meaning, self expression, and knowledge as in the field of watercolor’
Edward Reep, 1983 (from the book Content of Watercolor)

Harsh words from Mr. Reep, but he has a point. Students often don’t seem to move on from materials and technique. Part of the problem is that people seem to think they learn how to paint by attending workshops. I don’t mean to downplay that a workshop can help. Some just take so many or even worse, some actually only paint in workshop settings, never anywhere else! The art of painting is learned by painting!

Well, it all depends on what goals we have, doesn’t it? I guess it’s ok to just paint as a pastime. However, I think that someone who paints three times a year should not have the right to call themselves an artist, any more so than someone who thinks they’re a musician when they only play their instrument every leap year and otherwise just listen to music.
To think and talk about painting doesn’t count. To look at painting images on facebook doesn’t either. We actually have to do it.

The more we paint, the closer we get to the real reason of why we paint. We no longer focus on the ‘how’ but more on the ‘why’.

When we start it’s quite normal that we’re preoccupied with technique and materials. We inhale ‘how to paint this and that’-books and attend workshops. We have to start somewhere. After a while, the focus starts shifting. At least in theory.

As the years go by I started thinking more and more about why I paint. In the beginning I even had problems articulating it, or finding a good reason at all! Sure, I used to be a professional illustrator. Sure, I painted since I was a child on and off. Sure, I studied painting with an Italian master painter, etc. etc. But are those real reasons? Motivation enough to keep at it today, after all these years? Do I love it that much?

Everyone should ask themselves the question why they paint, I think. Painting ultimately should be about expression. A painter, even a representational painter, needs to have a vision that goes beyond copying shapes that we encounter in nature or take pictures of. We need to have something to say with our art. It’s a different path for each and everyone of us. It’s a different life for each and every one of us. Therefore our art and what we express should be highly personal and intimate. Despite social media, painting will remain a solitary pursuit where only the end product is shared with others and even that is not for certain.

Keep it that way.