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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Dancing with the angels - Part 3

I actually began this series, "Dancing with the angels", several weeks ago when Facebook friends were asked to share their experiences regarding the common phrase "in the zone". Is it a real phenomenon and if so, what's it like? 
Interviewing 12 elite artists and seeking input from Facebook friends, I was pretty amazed to find so many similarities in the answers. That alone tells me that there is indeed such a phenomenon, and with only a few tweeks, everyone pretty much agrees regarding the experience. There are differing opinions on how to get there and some disagreement on whether being "in the zone" enables us to produce work over and beyond our normal level of understanding. Some, without hesitation, insist it is possible to create work 'over and beyond'. Others say we are only able to produce work up to our level of understanding.
I tend to side with the second group. My argument is pretty simple, maybe too simple. However, if someone is able to create something spectacular, it tells me they are capable of doing it again. Within them somewhere is the knowledge and understanding that enabled them to do it in the first place. The word 'normal' is probably the stumbling block of the question.
To illustrate...I wouldn't expect Jackson Pollock, while deep deep "in the zone", to be able to produce anything close to a Rembrandt, but it wouldn't surprise me, if with a particular flick of the brush or bucket, he created something over and beyond anything he had done before.

Well, let's hear what our Facebook friends have to say...and at the end I'll summarize.

Value study for Best Friends - 4.5"x 4.5" - Oil on paper

Zan Barrage:   Being in the zone happens only when you have a clear vision of what you are attempting to put on canvas. The clearer the vision the faster you get in the zone. When we struggle and are ever conscious of what we are doing, I bet it is mostly because somewhere along the line we did not clarify the vision and we are making it up as we go along.

Cathleen Windham:  When I'm in "it", I know it. Can feel it. I understand why and where every stroke of my brush is going, and exactly why I chose and mixed that hue. The result is work I feel very good about.

Jimmy Longacre:  Not sure I can define the specific trigger, but it seems to follow prolonged periods of intensely focusing, with strong desire, on gaining better understanding of this or that aspect of my painting. The result is a feeling of "getting it" in some measure and a satisfying feeling of ease, confidence and rightness in what I'm doing.

Burnt Siena block-in

First applications of color

A. Jillian Crider:  I didn't 'do' anything to get there, other than working on a piece of art that I liked, and therefore not 'forced'. Result - one minute looking at a blank page, then next second looking at a completed work and staring in awe wondering how it got there. Did I REALLY do that?

Michael Pointer:  I used to think that it was something that just happened. Now I understand that it is a process of preparation that leads to the zone.

Nettie Carnett-Kennedy:  A vision of the outcome definitely seems to be a prerequisite. The 'zone' is a very real state where nothing exists except you and the painting...and you are driven by a force outside yourself to complete it. If you try to stop, it calls you back. Time does not exist, nor does hunger or sleep. You become tired but it won't let you rest...the painting has taken on its own life and energy and your very soul is in direct contact with our Creator.

John Hulsey:  My best paintings have come from those moments of complete absorption and focus on my painting. This was an easier state to achieve when I was much younger and had no other commitments or concerns. Nowadays it requires meditation to get to that calm, focused center.

Shadows defined

Jana Johnson:  I too have experienced the zone while painting or sketching - but often don't realize I've been in that state of mind until I stop working and step back to get a different perspective of my work which then breaks the spell of the zone. It's then I'll often notice for the first time I'm roasting from the heat, or freezing from the cold, or it's way later than I thought it was, things I wasn't even conscious of when in the zone.

Bruce Newman:  I have never gotten 'in the zone' by conscious thought. When it happens, I believe it comes from the confluence of interest in the work and a feeling that I am on the right track. It comes, essentially, from doing not thinking of doing.

Brocha Teichman:  I find, time and again, that it's about my clarity of vision at the start, and holding on to that, that keeps the painting honest and keeps me in the zone. When your vision and your hand aren't having an internal fight, that's harmony. Such paintings usually fall right off the brush...if only that happened more often.

Jimmy Leach:  Only get there when one gets lost in the act of doing painting, outside forces vanish, so one must DO painting to get into the zone of painting.

Lights clarified

Mike Perez:  It happens...but not sure what triggers it. Having a subject one relates to and is interested in helps a lot. Listening to music that one really feels, helps get me in the zone, even if it is the same song over and over. After a while, I am not really listening to anything but the rhythm. I recently heard Bill Evans, the jazz pianist, describe it in an interview from the 60's as getting into a state where the mechanics are in the subconscious and thus the mind is fully freed for creativity...(in his case improvisation around the structure of a music piece). It feels great! and then, there are those days where the left side of the brain takes over and it is hard to get anything down that you are happy with. I have wondered whether some Irish Cream would help get in the zone, but I have heard the effect is temporary. You really like what you are doing at first but after a while it doesn't look so good. 

...and then there's...

Howard Friedland:  I was once in the zone but got a ticket. It was a No Parking Zone!

Best Friends - 12"x 12" - Oil

In his book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience", psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (mee-hy  cheek-sent-me-hy-ee)...whew!...and I thought I had a difficult name...anyway, he extensively studied the phenomenon we've been considering. He coined the word "flow" in 1975 to express what we are calling, being "in the zone".
He decided on the term after interviews with several people who described their experience as being carried along in a current of in "going with the flow".
In a 1956 study, Mihaly determined that the human mind is capable of processing 126 bits of information per second and that a typical conversation consumes at least one-third of that total per second. Now I know why it's so difficult for me to talk and paint at the same time...and why it's virtually impossible to be in the zone while engaging in a conversation. After extensive research in the 1980's and 90's, Mihaly outlined several conditions needing to be present for any of us to have an "in the zone" experience.

Necessary conditions for "in the zone" activity:

  • Must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and be able to track progress. This gives direction and structure to the task.
  • The task must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the artist adjust to changes and enables him to stay in the zone.
  • There must be a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task and the perceived skill of the artist. Artist must have confidence that he is capable of doing the task at hand.
Emotions that disturb the flow are many, but these three are near the top: apathy, boredom, and anxiety. Apathy occurs when there is a low challenge accompanied by weak skills. Boredom: low challenge/high skill; Anxiety: excessive challenge/inadequate skill.
Just as negative emotions can prevent one from experiencing the "in the zone" phenomenon, positive emotions likewise aid its appearance.
Fully immersed, energized focus is a prevailing description of what we are talking about.

As an artist, the "flow" can be only entered while performing an activity, and more likely when we're wholeheartedly performing a task or activity for an intrinsic purpose.
We're not going to be "in the zone" while passively sitting on our hands staring at a blank canvas.

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An Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dancing with the angels - Part 2

Twelve professional artists talk about being "in the zone", what it means, what it's like, and how to get there.

There are lots of words for it..."in the grove", "singularly focused", "in tune", "wired in", "centered", "on a roll", and "in the moment". Some have described it as "going with the flow".

It is said of Michelangelo, that while he worked on the painting for the Sistine Chapel, he became so focused on the job at hand that he went for days without eating or sleeping until he almost passed out. 

That does seem to express the sentiments of some of our twelve artists as they discuss painting "in the zone"...not that any of them have actually passed out...but you get the idea.

I am pleased once again to bring you six more very accomplished artists who will continue our discussion of painting "in the zone" it real, what's it like, how do you get there, and what's the result? When it happens, it's like "dancing with the angels".

Thanks to this week's participants, as we present Part 2.

Karen Blackwood:  Classically trained, Karen Blackwood initially painted portraits and figurative works before the landscape became her constant muse. While her work gravitates toward the light and atmosphere in the landscape, her artistic pursuit is to convey an emotional response to the solitary beauty of nature and to achieve that perfect state of being that sometimes comes from painting it.. She is represented by Susan Powell in Madison, CT. She's   a member of Oil Painters of America and the Society of American Marine Artists.

Roger Dale Brown:   Roger believes that studying and painting from life is essential to being a good artist. He spends hours painting on location to enhance his ability to see the nuances of a scene, a day, or an object. He considers this one of the elements necessary to create a successful painting both on location and in the studio. Roger captures the emotion of the scene, by drawing on his knowledge and his dedication to art. He promotes art education in many ways, believing that passing along information is an obligation to generations of new artists.

John Cook:   From still life to portraits, landscapes to architecture...and his native-Texas western imagery, nothing is too small or too large for John to attempt as is demonstrated in his diverse range of subject matter. Trips to London, Paris, Bruges, Venice, Rome, Florence, Portofino, St.Marguerite, San Francisco, and New York have inspired many of Cook's paintings. In 2012, Cook's 11th annual one-man show was held at the Southwest Gallery in Dallas.

Kathleen Dunphy:   Kathleen's rapid success in the competitive art world was predicted when American Artist Magazine recognized her as one of the TopTen Emerging Artists in 1998. In the ensuing years, she has earned an impressive and growing reputation with galleries and collectors. A Signature Member of several important art organizations, most recently she has been honored with Signature Membership in the prestigious Plein Air Painters of America. She is one of those rare people who have true passion, dedication, and a gift for transposing nature's beauty to the canvas.

Daniel Gerhartz:   The powerful and evocative beauty of Gerhartz's paintings embrace a range of subjects, most prominently the female figure in either a pastoral setting or an intimate interior. He is at his best with subjects from everyday life, genre subjects, sacred-idyllic landscapes or figures in quiet repose, meditation or contemplative isolation. "My desire as an artist is that the images I paint would point to the Creator, and not to me, the conveyor. J.S. Bach said it well as he signed his work, 'Soli Deo Gloria', To God alone is the glory".

James Gurney:   Gurney is the author and illustrator of the New York Times bestselling Dinotopia book series. Solo exhibitions of his artwork have been presented at the Smithsonian Institution, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the Norton Museum of Art. He's recently been named a "Grand Master" by Spectrum Fantastic Arts and a "Living Master" by the Art Renewal Center. His most recent book, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter (2010) was Amazon's #1 bestselling book on painting for over 52 weeks and is based on his daily blog:

James Gurney - Dalleo's Deli - 9"x 12" - Oil

We've all heard the phrase "in the zone", what does that mean to you?

Blackwood:  "The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence." - Robert Henri. "In the zone" is that perfect state of being I strive to be in while painting, It's a state of letting the spirit within lead, working from the subconscious mind. Every movement and thought flows effortlessly.

Brown:  Being in the "zone" to me means being in a more visceral region of my mind. Being made in God's image, humans are inherently creative in one thing or another. When an artist creates, we go to a place in our subconscious that taps into the knowledge intuitively, and our emotions instinctively.

Cook:  Things are "clicking" when I'm painting productively. Not that it is an easy process, but I know somehow what looks "right", when the preceding brush stroke, or knife application is placed. I "explain" to myself often audibly, what temperature the next color should be, and what pigment, or mixture is wanted, or what correction is needed in drawing, and so on...Of course the drawing must be correct, and the composition must be worth continuing. Color, whether intense or muted, or purposefully unbalanced, should remain harmonious. The balance of simple patterns vs the complicated textures are becoming obvious to me, due to many paths down that road for the design to be "on". Must mention correct values. I could go on...I shall...Then the treatment of edges seems to fall in place. I can seem to understand which need to be "lost", and those that need to show straightness and obvious clarity. I do have much more fun watching an oil sketch fall in place without thinking much, something with a real flair happening quickly...within 45 minutes to an hour and a half.

Dunphy:  Being in the zone means being able to paint without tremendous effort, much like hitting my stride when I'm running or nordic skiing. All extraneous thoughts from other parts of my life turn off and I'm solely focused on the task at hand. It's finding that rhythm when my mind, body, and creative energy are all in sync.

Gerhartz:  When the conditions are right and I am accurately translating what my eyes see in terms of the abstract nature of light, shadow, shape, edge and color.

Gurney:  Having my conscious mind take the back seat, and letting intuition take over.

Karen Blackwood - Winter Reflections - 24"x 18" - Oil

If you believe in such a phenomenon, what techniques do you use to get there?

Blackwood:  To help me get "in the zone" or at the least, a higher level of focus, I try to approach my subject with great feeling. Taking the time to contemplate before brush touches canvas helps me to let go and paint from a more intuitive place, allowing the information to "flow" through me. In the studio, listening to music and looking through books of a master artist's work can stir my soul and subconscious, which allows flow to happen. I have been known to listen to the same CD to an insanely repetitive degree. If it works for a particular piece I'm working on, I tend to want to keep that mood throughout.

Brown:  It is important that I have an atmosphere that is conducive to painting. In my studio I have surrounded myself with inspirational things and music. This comfortable space helps me remove the "world" from my mind, so I can be more sensitive to the scene I am painting. Also, I problem solve; I imagine being in the scene, or on location again; I assign words to describe the scene; and finally I visualize the finished painting. By approaching a painting this way, it helps me bridge the two elements of painting, the science of painting and the intuitive aspect of painting. When I have a solid image in my mind, I can start painting. All of this helps de-clutter and prepare my mind to paint so it's easier to sink into that nice warm comfortable place...and create...

Cook:  Don't know how to "get there". I can't force anything to get there. In fact last year, because of some very stressful conditions, I was definitely out of the zone for a least six months. I struggled with drawing especially, and consequently painting anything worth showing anyone for that period...well, I won't linger on this. Tough year.

Dunphy:  It's easiest for me to get in the zone when I'm outside plein air painting. It seems like that direct communion with my subject matter helps me to more easily ignore that background chatter of non-art-related thoughts. I still can get in the zone in the studio but it happens with more effort. I've found that certain music helps set the tone - classical baroque music, Italian opera arias, and most especially Gregorian chants.

Gerhartz:  Putting myself in the position to be successful, (working from life, distractions minimized, enough rest, approach the subject humbly, and squint!)

Gurney:  Ironically, I've got to think consciously to get to the intuitive state, and just practice a lot.

Kathleen Dunphy - Magic Hour - 15"x 30" - Oil

When in the "zone", are you more conscious and aware of what you're doing...or less so?

Blackwood:  When I'm in the "zone", I am more highly in tune to what I'm painting but less self-conscious of my process. It's a more intuitive state where the painting seems to paint itself. I lose all sense of time, at least until my husband or daughter calls out for food!

Brown:  Even though my space is important at the beginning of a painting, once I am in the "zone" I am less conscious of my surrounding, or of time, and more in tune with my creative process. I would say I am less conscious when in the "zone". Since I worked through the foundational decisions and possible problems with my painting early on, the decisions and process of painting are easier. This doesn't mean it's a "walk in the park" for there can still be struggles, and sometimes I still have to wrestle that thing down, but I am less likely to get frustrated and angry. I stay calm and the painting proceeds at a nice pace and rhythm. 

Cook:  Definitely aware of what I'm doing, as described in the first answer, but not laboring mentally or emotionally.

Dunphy:  Both - I'm more aware of the idea and feeling that I'm painting and less aware of the technical aspect of it.

Gerhartz:  Not necessarily aware of it. More aware when I am not in it.

Gurney:  I'm inside the painting, not thinking of my immediate surroundings.

Daniel Gerhartz - Dawn from Within - 60"x 60" - Oil

Are your best ideas and work a result of being "zoned in" or does it make any difference?

Blackwood:  I am personally more fulfilled when I am "zoned in". It is invigorating, joyous and feels like a state of being more fully awake. Because the subconscious is flowing more freely, I think there is a deeper level revealed in the work for those able to read it, making it more successful for me.

Brown:  All of my planned ideas and crucial decisions about a painting come prior to the "zone". Once the decisions are made, and I have a clear image of my painting, I am free to de-clutter my mind, and go into the "zone". The advantage of this process for me, is when I am in the "zone", my right brain is in control. This opens up the opportunity for some fantastic ideas to arise during the painting. I can realize them and take advantage of these opportunities.

Cook:  Can't answer that my best ideas come "in the zone", but my best canvases definitely do.

Dunphy:  Yes, by far my best work comes when I'm in the zone. It causes a conflict for me because I can only be in the zone when I don't have the distraction of other people around, even other artist friends. I enjoy the camaraderie of painting with others and need that human interaction, but I end up having to view those paintings days more as "mental health" days instead of times when I get serious work done.

Gerhartz:  I believe all artist work is best when focus is concentrated and precise. I believe my best works have almost painted themselves.

Gurney:  The two modes switch back and forth for best results, like two different creative characters: The idea man and the refiner.

John Cook - Out to Pasture - 30"x 40" - Oil

Is it possible for a "zoned in" person to produce work beyond their normal ability or level of understanding?

Blackwood:  Being "in the zone" is an active, high state of functioning that can propel me to another level. Provided I have acquired the necessary skills, the excitement brought on by a challenge above my current level of understanding awakens my spirit and allows me to reach the higher state within that my conscious self sometimes blocks.

Brown:  For me, the only way this whole process works is to study and build my understanding of the fundamentals of painting, understanding what I see and my ability to see as an artist. I have to train myself to see the subtleties of a scene and to understand perspective, atmosphere, quality of light, shade, value and edge. You can't paint what you don't know. We are given talent, but passion is the driving force that will develop it. Without putting in the work the emotional part of art has nothing to draw from. Since being in the zone is being more visceral, I don't think I can paint beyond my ability, but it does make it easier to work from the knowledge that I have collected over the years and it makes me more intuitive with my decisions and not over think and second guess myself. 

Cook:  Any piece that exceeds my normal ability is a gift from God. Should that happen, I believe I would continue doing even greater things, with a dedicated work ethic. Love this! There are some pieces in the past that stand out as hard to "match the magic". I wouldn't continue if I thought it might not happen again.

Dunphy:  Without a doubt. I call those works gifts that are given to me in order to let me know I'm on the right track and encourage me to keep going.

Gerhartz:  Yes

Gurney:  To me, intuition is conscious understanding made automatic. Rarely do I get major leaps of intuition that take me beyond my conscious awareness of solutions.

Roger Dale Brown - Old Hickory - 22"x 28" - Oil

When "in the zone", are you aware of it?

Blackwood:  I think on some level I am aware that I am "in the zone". Everything feels so right. When I'm out of it, I still have that lingering "high" that makes me look forward to painting again. It is an addiction, isn't it?

Brown:  I am aware I can go to the "zone", but I don't always know that I am there, until someone or something interrupts me.

Cook:  Definitely aware when I'm "in it", however, being in it one day doesn't necessarily carry over to the next session. Hate this!

Dunphy:  Not right away. Usually some time will have passed where I realize I'm in a great rhythm and not struggling so much. Then I try not to think about it to much in order not to jinx myself out of it!

Gerhartz:  Not always, the more I think about being "in the zone" the more I can be assured I am not in it.

Gurney:  Yes, and I try to abet the mood by means of music or sound effects.

Special thanks to each of the distinguished artists participating in this enlightening discussion. Your comments have been greatly appreciated.

For those that have not read Part 1, I invite you to do so. It also features six elite artists: Kenn Backhaus, Joni Falk, David Gray, Marc Hanson, C.W. Mundy, and Romona Youngquist. It's also very good. Just scroll down and continue reading. Thanks.

Artist's Websites

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An Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view bio and work, please click HERE


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Dancing with the angels - Part 1

Twelve professional artists talk about being "in the zone", what it's like and how to get there.

When Facebook friend, John (Skeets) Richards, suggested I do a blog addressing the issue of whether or not artists are in a "zone" when they paint their best, I thought it was a good topic to pursue. I personally don't think in those terms, I'm just focused on doing the best painting I can. I will acknowledge that once in a great while some of my paintings have been created so effortlessly and quickly that they seem to have painted themselves...but most of the time it is just tough, down and dirty, hard work...with all the ensuing frustrations.
I guess I never thought of those effortless paintings as having been done while "in the zone", but maybe that's a suitable explanation. After considering the opinions expressed below, it's very possible I'm "in the zone" more than I realize. Having professional artists address the issue will cast light on the subject. It's hard to deny that something really special can happen when we're in the creative mode...often unexpectantly. I call it "dancing with the angels".

I'm honored to have such an elite group of artists address this issue. Here are this weeks participants: 

Kenn Backhaus:  After an award winning career as a commercial designer and illustrator, Kenn decided in 1984 to devote more time to his passion for painting and his love of the outdoors. He found that capturing true color, value, atmosphere and the mood of a subject was best done on location or through direct observation. Winner of many awards and a featured artist in a 13-part PBS television program "Passport & Palette", Kenn is a Master Signature Member of the Oil Painters of America and the American Impressionist Society.

Joni Falk:  Joni has lived in Phoenix, AZ since 1960. She has been featured in several magazines and books, and is a popular instructor at the Scottsdale Artist School. Her work is included in the permanent collections of The Cheyenne Old West Museum, The Booth Museum, and The Desert Caballeros Museum. She's represented by Legacy Galleries, Settlers West...and has participated shows at The National Museum of Wildlife Art and the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma.

David Gray:  An award winning artist, David has made a career of pursuing a pure and relevant art form which has its roots in the Classical Tradition. The resulting paintings reveal a personal and contemporary expression of beauty and order while giving a clear nod to the Old Masters. David's works have been collected throughout the United States and abroad since 1997.

Marc Hanson:  A Signature Member of OPA and winner of the OPA Bronze Medal for oil painting in the 2011 National Exhibition. He was awarded both Artist' Choice and Best of Show at the 2012 Door County Plein Air Festival. His work can be seen at Addison Art Gallery, R.S. Hanna Gallery, Gallery 1261, Elizabeth Pollie Fine Art, and the Mary Williams Gallery.

C.W. Mundy:  Worked as a sports illustrator for several years. In the early 1990's he took on the challenge of painting in a more impressionistic style, going out of doors and painting "en plein air" and "from life". Now a noted American Impressionist, he is a Master Signature Member of OPA. Most recently, 2007, he was awarded Master Status in The American Impressionist Society. He is also a Signature Member of The American Society of Marine Artists.

Romona Youngquist:  Self taught with nature as her classroom and the great masters her teachers, Romona knew at age four that painting would be her calling. Today you'll find her paintings as far away as Germany, London, and downtown Manhattan. Her works have been published in the premier art magazines including Southwest Art, American Art Collector, and Art Talk.

C. W. Mundy - Sunrise-My Backyard - 20"x 16" - Oil

We've all heard the phrase "in the zone", what does that mean to you?

Backhaus:  Being in the zone is like a well-oiled machine, you are performing without hesitation, no distractions, and can push yourself and you respond, The challenges that are present or come up during the painting process become solved. The traditional sound principal and foundations guide your skills that you have acquired over the years. Confidence directs the eye and the hand. Everything within you and around you is in harmony. 

Falk:  "In the zone" for me, means my painting seems to almost paint itself...a sense of confidence and satisfaction as the painting progresses.

Gray:  To me it means that space in time when everything you do is "right". In these moments it seems like you can do just about anything. And if you do make a mistake it is corrected with ease and on the spot. It's a time when everything you've learned is working for you. Your background, natural skills, education, and years of hard work are all coming out on the canvas and it's glorious. You trust yourself implicity and all of your second guessing goes out the window. Ir's a great place to be.

Hanson:  My earliest memories of being an 'artist', were while sitting at my parents kitchen table with a newsprint drawing tablet and some pencils and crayons, making action drawings of tanks, soldiers and airplanes at war. Man, was I "in the zone" then. In a place of total imaginative, creative thought, where the question from my mom..."Marc, are you listening to me???", didn't even make a sound wave in that zoned world that I was in while the airplanes and helicopters flew over head, while the tanks rumbled across the impossible terrain, and while so many army men became 'X's and tanks went up in clouds of red and yellow flames.
That is what being in the zone means to me. Being totally absorbed in the act of creative activity, in a heightened state of awareness. Being so absorbed by the painting activity, that nothing else around me has meaning, and time evaporates. It's letting your conscious mind go to where it needs to go to achieve complete concentration on the task at hand.

Mundy:  "In the zone" is a term used by an artist to describe being subconsciously carried along in the painting, making one creative move after another. You may not be aware of being in the zone. The painting experience has mesmerized the artist.

Youngquist:  Being "in the zone" is like having a wonderful massage in which you're conscious but asleep at the same time. It's the place I want to be. It's where I reach my optimal creativity and production and where I have the most fun.

Kenn Backhaus - Cotton Wood Beach - 30"x 30" - Oil

If you believe in such a phenomenon, what techniques do you use to get there?

Backhaus:  I don't think you can control when you get into the zone. I feel it happens on its own from one's focus and enthusiasm of the project.

Falk:   Regarding the phenomenon of "in the zone", I think it is just that...if there were a technique to get there, I sure would like to know what it is...???

Gray:  I don't believe you can force it or make it occur. It just happens sometimes. It comes as a result of years of discipline. I consider that I am highly skilled and have worked very, very hard for many years to develop my craft. I can paint or draw something very well on demand. But that doesn't mean I'm in the zone. Usually I have to keep my wits about me the entire day of painting and the littlest thing can throw me off. Still I have learned how to fight through and create effectively. Only once in a blue moon do I ever feel like I'm truly in the zone.

Hanson:  It's easiest for me to find myself "in the zone" when outside on location, painting 'en plein air'. Almost every time that I paint outside, I'm there, in the zone. I think that's partly why I feel that is the most honest place for me to be painting. Having the time constraint of plein air painting, and the lack of any outside interference, except for the occasional passerby, makes it the ideal situation fo me to find myself in that zone.
In the studio, to help me move into that place of concentration, I choose music to listen to that will help me find that zone once I get a painting going. That changes from day to day, and according to where I am in the painting. At first I like music that is...loud and upbeat. Music that sort of shakes the rafters. Then as I am developing the painting, I turn to music that is softer and less intrusive, that allows me to concentrate. Sometimes I need to turn it off completely and have a silent work zone to zone out in.

Mundy:  Problem solving should be the process before ever beginning the painting. The left hemisphere of the brain, the analytical side, is the problem solver. Preparedness in getting everything ready is hugely important. It's like a surgeon who has everything on the table and ready to go. I also have found in the last six months, that I have more opportunity to get into the zone if I have no music, no distractions. Having the excitement to create, to take on the challenge of a new painting, is a key ingredient and a wonderful start!

Youngquist:  The best way for me to get there is to be constantly painting. It's like a snowball effect and the more I paint the more everything around me disappears (not good for housework). And the ideas just keep coming.

Joni Falk - Taos Winter - 20"x 20" - Oil

When in the "zone", are you more conscious and aware of what you're doing...or less so?

Backhaus:  I sense that there is a time period that elapses before one knows that you are in a zone. Once you feel that everything is in that harmonious mode, yes, then you realize that you are in the zone. I feel that you are more conscious and aware of what you are doing and you also note that you are doing it according to your truths and beliefs. There is a sense of honesty that abounds.

Falk:   As far as being more conscious and aware what I'm doing or less so...I definitely think I am aware I'm in the zone in that the painting seems to be flowing and coming together more easily - and with more confidence..

Gray:  I think I'm just as conscious. It's just that all my decisions seem to be "right". All my marks are spot on. I'm still very cognizant.

Hanson:  Yes, I'm totally conscious of what I'm doing when in the zone. I paint without thinking about what I'm doing, but on a conscious level. My experience, training, skills, and desires as an artist become one fluid movement when in this place. Like I mentioned above, it's a heightened state of awareness that I find myself in when there. Being in the zone is very similar to being in a meditative state. I tried meditation as part of a yoga class I was taking once. I realized that when I'm painting...and in the zone...I'm consistently in a meditative place, so the meditation class was kind of pointless for me.

Mundy:  It's a combination of both being conscious of what you're doing, and less conscious. But if you really "let go", it can lean toward being unaware of what you're doing. There's a connective interplay between both knowing and not knowing.

Youngquist:  I'm less conscious and intuition kicks in. And that's where the fun and passion happens.

David Gray - Arrangement with Selected Sketches - 18"x 24" - Oil

Are your best ideas and work a result of being "zoned in" or does it make any difference?

Backhaus:  Yes, definitely my better works come from being in the zone.

Falk:  I think some of my best paintings were done while "in the zone", and I look back on them and wonder "how I did that".

Gray:  I think for me there is a slight difference. In general I would say my best work has been done while "zoned in", but not always. I've done some paintings I'm very proud of that have been a fight every step of the way.

Hanson:  This is a difficult place to be if you have interruptions by phones, other people, or errands to run for the day. My best work comes when I'm lucky enough to be able to find that level of concentration. Not because there's anything metaphysical about it, simply because I'm concentrating and keeping a clear path open as I paint along. With too much interruption, I loose the ability to go deeply within myself and my creative thoughts. It makes sense that a painting wouldn't get the full store of what I feel and have to offer it if I'm not there.

Mundy:  Based on my own results, the best paintings can be painted either in the zone or not in the zone. Nevertheless, for creative explorations, every endeavor and experience is different.

Youngquist:  Heck ya.

Marc Hanson - October Flow - 10"x 8" - Oil

Is it possible for a "zoned in" person to produce work beyond their normal ability or level of understanding?

Backhaus:  Yes.

Falk:  I do think it is possible to produce work beyond normal ability or's as if that feeling of "self-doubt' disappears.

Gray:  I think so. I'm not sure I've been there, but I believe it can happen. My process is so controlled that I am very rarely surprised by the result. "Happy accidents" just don't happen with me. Though highly skilled and a good teacher of my craft, I still don't consider myself a "Master". I'm not sure I've done a work that completely transcends my earthbound limitations. But I believe it can happen. I've heard of these kinds of experiences happening to people working in other art forms as well...musicians, or actors, for example.

Hanson:  I'd prefer to say that it's 'more possible' to create the work that you're capable of making, if you are able to concentrate at the level that being in the zone brings to you and your painting.

Mundy:  It is absolutely possible for a "zoned in" person to produce work beyond their normal ability. Retrospective thinking will prove it out.

Youngquist:  I think you still only paint to the level of your knowledge, but happy accidents happen. If only I can remember how I did it.

Romona Youngquist - October's End - 24"x 30" - Oil

When "in the zone", are you aware of it?

Backhaus:  As I mentioned earlier, for me I may be performing for a time period before I realize that I am in the zone. Believe me, you will know it when your're there. The results of your efforts should reveal it. 

Falk:  When I am "in the zone" I am definitely aware of it - it's that special feeling I wish I could experience more often.

Gray:  Yes, I think I am.

Hanson:  I think this one was pretty much answered in question #3.

Mundy:  In most cases, I am not conscious of being "in the zone" although on the other hand, several times, I think that I have made the realization that I'm in the zone while "in the zone".

Youngquist:   It's the same thing that happens when getting a massage. Your aware but at the same time not....(using linseed oil instead of lavender).

Artist's Websites:

Kenn Backhaus

Next week Part 2 featuring: Karen Blackwood, Roger Dale Brown, John Cook, Kathleen Dunphy, Daniel Gerhartz, and James Gurney. Don't miss it.

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An Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Greenhouse Gallery Anniversary Show

8 February - 1 March 2013

"31st Anniversary Celebration"
Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art
6496 N. New Braunfels Avenue
San Antonio, TX 78209
Mark Smith:

I'm pleased to announce my participation in the 31st Anniversary Celebration of the Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art. I've submitted four paintings for this year's show.
When it comes to listing favorite places to paint, two that would be right up there near the top are the country of Italy and the state of Vermont. Both locations are featured in my display. I invite you take a serious look at these and consider how beautiful they'd look if purchased for that special spot in your home.

Italian Coast - 24"x 48" - Oil

Cruising Lake Como aboard a ferry, the sun shining, the temperature perfect...well, it was pretty difficult to stop taking pictures long enough in order to eat lunch. So, after gobbling down some trout, potatoes, pasta, carrots, bread and water, I was back on deck capturing as much of this incredible coastline as possible. Of all the European countries I've visited, Italy is my favorite (haven't been to France). What an amazingly beautiful place. The architecture, stonework and sculpture...well, it's just perfect. They are designers and craftsmen extraordinaire. Cruising along the coast of Lake Como, with its spectacular backdrop, has presented me with subject matter for many years to come. Italian Coast is just the beginning.. 

House in the Woods - 18"x 18" - Oil

If you want a great place to stay, I strongly recommend "Inn Victoria" in Chester, VT. Located right on Main Street, this little Inn is surrounded by magnificent old churches and houses. After a hearty breakfast of raspberries with whipped cream, waffles, bacon, apples with Vermont Maple Syrup, orange juice and Yorkshire Black Tea, I was wired for a day of painting. Traveling the back roads, I found this very interesting House in the Woods, a structure nestled deep among trees. In need of significant repairs, I took the liberty to spruce it up a bit while still retaining its unique character.

On the Way to Rome - 12"x 20" - Oil

My wife and I have visited Italy twice. On our first trip to Southern Italy, and after two weeks of intense sightseeing...many hours on a tour bus... we were ready to get home. The day before leaving was spent in Montecatini. I walked at least seven miles, up and down Montecatini Alto and a good bit in Montecatini Terma. I thought the five hour bus trip to Rome to catch our flight would probably be a great time to just sleep...not so. The inspiration for On the Way to Rome was found on that drive. Cloud formations that day were spectacular and in constant flux over the mountains. The picture of them remains with me to this day.

New England Morning - 16"x 24" - Oil

Fog and light rain were the order of the day for West Dover, VT. Located just north of Wilmington, West Dover is a beautiful little spot nestled at the base of the Green Mountain National Forest. You wouldn't know it on this particular day, but the beautiful Green Mountains are right there. Do you see them? They're right there, just through the fog. It did not make much sense to do a lot of sightseeing in this kind of weather, but it was a perfect day to paint as the light remained pretty constant. While standing in front of the Deerhill Inn, a light drizzle complicating things, I completed two small color studies. These were the impetus for New England Morning.

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An Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
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