A Light Touch

I've been practicing watercolor for 7 months now, with my teacher, Stacey Vetter. As is my wont, I thought that I'd be seeing certain kinds of results earlier. It doesn't really matter what I'm doing, exercising, studying, making art--I always want things to happen overnight. In this case, I wanted to see how the watercolor painting would transfer over to my collage work.

Luckily, I did notice results with the watercolor, at least enough to keep me going and, just when I'd forgotten about what it was I wanted to happen, it began to do so. I am just beginning to understand how crucial a light touch is.

Previously in my art, I've worked hard to create a series of layers whether it is in fabric, collage, paint or even pencil. I want to show the history of marks, to leave tracks that hint at the evolution of the piece.

Now, as I begin to believe in the power of the light touch, I find myself applying the same process with collage. This morning after adding a layer of gel to a panel, I stood back, gazed at it and stripped away layers that had been softened by the gel. There was a moment that I caught a reflection of the piece's bones and I liked them.

It makes me think of Reiki, that hands on healing technique that we use in the hospital to help with pain and anxiety.

As I hold my hands in different positions on a person's body, I find myself thinking "What I am doing? Is this crazy?" And invariably after I say that to myself, I see the child relaxing, going to sleep, the room quiets and even the parents in the room settle down. One of the patients I worked on described the effects as "smoothing out the wrinkles of pain."--As if while the pain subsides, ripples of relaxation take over.

I can't help but notice the correlation between Reiki and watercolor.  Watercolor too is a smoothing and rippling-the sound and feel of the paint going onto the paper, the shush shush as the brush slides over the soft, stippled paper, brushing on color. And there's something else about the relationship between Reiki and art; both require a light touch. The less you work at it, the better it is.

The Limits of Choice

Art making continually satisfies something deep inside us and, at the same time, places us beyond ourselves. Cathy Malchiodi, The Soul's Palette

Choice of attention - to pay attention to this and ignore that - is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer.

W.H. Auden

For the last couple of weeks, I've been on a strict 1 color diet. Yes. You read that right; not a 1 calorie diet but a 1 color one.

Color is something I use lavishly in my work, a substance that I immerse myself in and then splash around like a duck.

It's also something in which I easily get lost.

While dipping my brush in color, thinking about the confluence of hues, tints and shades, I lose track of how much paint is loaded on my brush and what color is flowing where.

This came to a head one Friday morning during a watercolor class. Stacey, my instructor, put her hand firmly on the table and said, "O.K., I want you to use just one color for the time being. It doesn't matter what color it is, but you can't mix two together and you can't even mix black." (yes, that indescribably subtle blend of cobalt blue and raw umber...)

OI!, it was already Passover; a week of the matzoh mile and now this: I'm  supposed to restrict myself to one color?

It's been two weeks now and I'm getting used to this diet. Heck, at times, I even like it.

At the very least, it keeps things simple. While writing this post, my eyes lighted on a short interview with researcher, Sheena Iyengar, who wrote The Art of Choosing.  "When did you first have an inkling that choice has limits?" asked the interviewer. Sheena  answered that it happened while studying the effect that choice had on a group of 3-year-olds.

"Half the children were permitted to play with any of the toys in the room, while the other half were told what they could play with. I assumed that the kids with the most freedom to choose would have more fun, right? Wrong. I observed the exact opposite. The assigned group played happily; the free choice group was disengaged and listless."

How about that? Adapting to one color has made me anything but disengaged and listless. And there are other payoffs. The first time I get the leaf-to-bud balance just right, the flower in front of me comes alive on the paper.

Despite my kvetching, I'm proud that I am keeping my commitment to a 'year of watercolor'  and grateful for Stacey's steady hand as a teacher and artist.  I may just stay on this new diet for a while...

Circles Within Circles


When I last wrote about painting persimmons with Stacey Vetter, a number of people asked me to keep them "posted." I had the best of intentions but my production took a sharp downturn high up in the hills of Carmel Valley.

While my son Ben played golf on the tiered greens of Saint Lucia Preserve, I hid myself behind a Valley Oak and began to paint acorns and oak leaves. The sun was hot and rather than creating distinct layers,  the walnut ink pooled on paper. After an hour, I had only a few clusters to show for my efforts. Discouraged, I decided to report my findings to Stacey the next week.

Stacey took a survey of my results and prescribed painting circles. "Circles??" I asked. Not one to stand on ceremony, she picked up her brush and began to demonstrate what she meant. As I watched her, I noticed that she handled the brush with a deftness born of deep practice. The brush seemed to swirl around with no hesitation.

I took up my brush, discovering that it intended design on its own--and performed the opposite of hers. Frustrated, I reminded myself of the revered book by Shunryu Suzuki: "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind." "It's O.K." I assured myself. I have to work against my own grain when I put myself in a place where I know very little and I need to have a high tolerance for mistakes.

I decided to persevere. As I did, I began to notice little things: how as I came around the bend of the curve and the brush seemed to be running out of ink, it would disperse just enough ink to easily close the circle. Slowly, as I repeated the circles, I began to feel the delight I experienced as a child on ice skates when I figured out how to spin. Soon I was spinning the ink. Circles and more circles. On hot press. On cold press. On rice paper. On banana paper.

My next challenge was to create a shading in the circle. Stacey explained that I would need to paint a piece of the circle and then stop; making sure to leave an organic shape, quickly rinse my brush and then, with precisely the amount of water as I had just shed of pigment, finish off the circle.

A few days later at a studio time with my friend Linda, a landscape water colorist, I decided to try my hand at it. She sat down to complete a gorgeous landscape of Lake Tahoe and I brought out my circles. She glanced over after a while and noted that how boring it must be. Her comment caught me by surprise. I had become completely involved in the act of touching paint to paper and watching it react.

In its own way, it was as fascinating as observing a patient in her hospital room. How did the first stroke lay down? (Is the patient alone in her room?) What kind of organic shape should I leave? (What kind of expression does the patient have? What is the tone of their speech?) Does the paint granulate as it begins to dry? Is it a staining or non staining pigment? (Does she want to cover the entire paper or work in just a tiny corner?)

Like the beginning of William Blake's poem, "Auguries of Innocence," it seemed that I'd discovered "a world in a grain of sand."

To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour.

After I explained to Linda what I was seeing, she too got caught up and soon we were both exploring the depths of her vast collection of colors. They were seductive, those circles, and she couldn't resist trying her hand at a few.

I'm not sure where these circles will lead and I'm sure a few of them will land in collage works. In the meantime, I'm taking time to relish the turn of the brush.

Persimmons on Parade

©2011, H. Hunter, Persimmon study, walnut ink on paper

I began a new chapter of my life last week. Like many people pursuing a career, it's necessary sometimes to take matters into my own hands and sharpen my saw. For a while now, I've wanted to focus my attention on drawing--to begin as it were, a drawing practice. I decided to talk to my friend Stacey Vetter, botanical painter, illustrator and draftswoman extraordinaire. I'd taken a class with her a year ago through our local arts center and had loved it.

This time, I wanted to go a little further, so I asked her if she'd be open to a series of private lessons.

She asked what I'd like to focus on  and I told her I wanted to reclaim my practice of journaling and use plants rather than words.  And I wanted to turn the effort into a kind of meditation.

Stacey turned out to be my go-to-gal.  I arrived at her studio to find a simple wooden table covered with a linen print cloth. On top of the cloth were placed a clutch of green persimmons. (They'll ripen steadily until December, when they'll hang on the tree like tiny orange globes, dangling miniature pumpkins.)

Next to the persimmons sat a flask of walnut ink which, Stacey explained, was created by a man named Tom Norton, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had formulated a lightfast ink resembling the ink of the old masters. At the time of Rembrandt, artists used real walnut ink which faded over time, becoming a lovely rich, dark umber that we see today.  Now it's reinvented for all of us to use in perpetuity.

I discovered after just a short time, how similar the art of ink painting is to life. After explaining some possibilities, Stacey suggested that we start simply--and like any good builders, that we work on the foundation. (These were wise words, because already, as she spoke, I found myself lost in the crenellations of the persimmons' crown. )

Mu Qi, 13th century Chinese painter

She gave me three instructions: Slow down and surrender, accept what the ink is going to do and keep it simple. I've been immersing myself in persimmons and pomegranates since then, fascinated by how difficult keeping it simple truly is.

Several days after my first lesson, Stacey sent me a link to the picture above, a gorgeous study of persimmons by the 13th century Chinese master, MuQi. She also included this quote:

"Since birth we get accustomed to seeing and thinking at the same time. But I think that if you can turn off the mind and look at things only with your eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract."   Ellsworth Kelly from Drawn from Nature