The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Tag: studio practice

Being a “painter”


I wonder why being described as a “painter” can so often be aggravating? I recognize it as an accurate description of my concerns as an artist, the methods and materials used to externalize these concerns, as well as the histories and discourses that frame them. I spend a disproportionate amount of my time painting, or thinking about painting, or teaching painting.

And yet, in certain contexts, the term feels condescending. For many people in the art world, “painter” is a label that attaches as a kind anachronism, a throwback to a pre-“post-studio” era. It is also, therefore, a mark of being not quite bright enough to understand that what you are doing is no longer relevant.

In general, I describe myself as an artist. But the truth is, without painting and drawing I wouldn’t be an artist. I don’t make my work in order to be an artist, rather, I am an artist because of my work. This may seem like a nebulous distinction, but it has implications for the ways I think about what I do in the studio.

Even when what I’m making isn’t painting as such, I’m thinking about it in relationship to painting. My sensibility is pictorial, and image-making is the basis for my responses to the world. The labour of applying paint to a support, the patient building of mark upon mark, layer upon layer, decision after decision, is also a mode of thinking.

My work isn’t “conceptual” in the way that this word is often used in relation to artworks – that is, as a diagram of thinking that is conveniently available to the initiated viewer – but, it is informed by all sorts of ideas and experiences that are external to art. These ideas are filtered through the process of making, often in ways that are obscure to me, and they govern or shift the choices I make in the work.

Crucially, the reverse is also true: making my work illuminates and informs my life. For me, drawing and painting are the ways that light is cast on the world, they allow a kind of search that I don’t find possible in other forms. The focused combination of physical, emotional, and rational energies that are brought to bear when I am painting clarifies how I relate to the world, and ideally, how I am living my life.

Finally, there are the objects themselves, their specific amalgam of spirit and dirt. When I’m standing in front of a great painting or drawing, the sense of vitality, experience, and hope that has been conjured out of inanimate mud seems as close to a miracle as I am likely to encounter. When I ask myself why I am a “painter”, these qualities are my answers. And, when asked why I “still” make paintings, I try to keep these things in mind, and then answer “because I don’t know any better”.

Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1911

Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1911 (



A Walk in the Park (in memory of Sally Bean)

Sally on the boardwalk

Sally on the boardwalk


I walk my dog every morning. Between 25 and 60 minutes a day are spent moving through the small, rural town that I live in, silent, except for occasional commands to “leave it”, or a brief exchange of pleasantries with the few others who are awake and outside before the business of the day is begun. Sometimes I have a point and shoot digital camera with me, that I point and shoot at things that catch my attention. Sometimes I simply make a mental note and move on.

The activity of walking and thinking and looking, both alone and in quiet companionship, has become the raw material for the work I do in my studio. By attempting to remark on the unremarkable, I am trying to make fleeting thoughts and elusive feelings more concrete. By producing first snapshots, then drawings and paintings, I am trying to render my lived experience more tangible and available for reflection. The impulse of the work is aimed at probing the relationship between my subjectivity and the material reality that is its precondition. Autobiography is not the concern, but rather, an attempt to understand the ways that my life is ensnared in wider orbits of meaning.

The work that I have made in the past few years has been overwhelmingly involved with picturing the remnants of processes and actions: digging, cutting, piling, dropping, scraping, falling, building, growing, dying. Debris is saturated with the stubborn thickness of things. The implacable presence of objects and chunks of stuff puts a check on my big ideas. It reorients my attention and makes manifest my utter rootedness in the physical world.

Despite this emphasis on the empirical and the mundane, I don’t consider the works themselves to be transparent representations of reality. Rather than windows or mirrors, I regard them as traces; signs that exist in their own right, but also point outside of themselves and their depicted subject matter. They relate at oblique angles to both my experience of the world and my responses to it.

When I follow my dog along a path, guided by her extraordinary hearing and smell, I am introduced to a world that is largely unavailable to my senses. The perceptions that guide her snuffling search through dead leaves, or that compel her to dig and lick at an apparently banal patch of grass or tree trunk, has led me to understand that what I take for granted as the ‘visible world’ is an astonishingly thin layer of reality. When I follow my work along a path, I am hunting for similarly invisible and compelling tokens of ordinary life.




Painting studio critique room, Anderson Ranch, Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

Painting studio critique room, Anderson Ranch, Snowmass, Colorado, 2015

Some of us are lucky enough to have a few fellow artists or a mentor that give us consistent and rigourous criticism of our work. But too often, the brutally honest comment is withheld in favour of the polite and understandable need to avoid alienating your community. After all, many of us have worked hard to assemble a group of like minded peers to soften the sense of isolation that accompanies work in the studio.

In a critique situation, many things are at play: the insight and judgment of the critic; your own understanding and investment in your work; your confidence, or lack thereof; the critic’s interest, or lack thereof; everybody’s ego; the general level of openness and comfort with the discussion at hand. For me, the central element in a successful critique is trust. Without it, the process is at best futile and at worst damaging.

This is true both when the critic is another person, or when it is the artist themselves, in the assessment of their own work. The critique dialogue is about subjecting assumptions to hard scrutiny, through relentless  questioning, and unpacking of ideas and confusions. The conversation ought to be aimed at the illumination of the work, and most importantly, identifying ways to make the work, and the artist, better. Without trust, that dialogue can easily sour to defensiveness, evasiveness, cynicism, crushed egos, hurt feelings, loss of confidence and will.

Trust and respect are deeply entwined with each other in this process. To me, trust is the ability to be in a vulnerable position with another being, or yourself. The potential to be hurt by someone else, or by the person inside you, is a present danger when the ideas and aspirations that you hold most dear are being taken apart and ruthlessly probed. Respect, on the other hand, is the ability to take trust and shelter it gently, with an understanding of its fragility. It is also admiration for a person’s actions, integrity, and how they meet the world.

These are mutually dependent and reciprocal qualities, and the ability to extend them to others rests on the ability to extend them to oneself. The loss of these qualities is easily achieved, and spreads like a stain to one’s work and life. Re-building self-trust and respect is an arduous process, with no guarantee of success, but I have found that going back to the studio and starting the work again can be a good place to start.

work in progress, 2015

work in progress, 2015


Live / Work / Space

Weldon Street studio under construction, 2015

Weldon Street studio under construction

What is the function of the studio?
1. It is a place where the work originates.
2. It is generally a private place, an ivory tower perhaps.
3. It is a stationary place where portable objects are produced.
The importance of the studio should by now be apparent; it is the first frame, the first limit, upon which all subsequent frames/limits will depend.
Daniel Buren, The Function of the Studio

Studio: from the Latin studium meaning eagerness or zeal. (

I have recently moved into a new studio space in the attic of my house. Although this move was dictated by practical concerns, it has also led me to consider the benefits of a live/work space, as well as to reflect on the purpose of the studio for my work and my life.

Is the studio just a means-ends set up, as Daniel Buren seems to suggest in the epigram quoted above? An ivory tower for the production of luxury goods? Is it, instead, as Daniel Arasse puts it in reference to Vermeer, a pictorial laboratory?

I prefer to think of it as the latter, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. The fact is, that so far my work is made in a space that is called a studio; it hasn’t yet become a cottage industry for luxury goods, but maybe that is just a matter of time. A certain amount of experiment, critical thinking, and labour takes place in the studio, but maybe laboratory is overstating it. I think it is a space of inquiry, of work on questions that don’t have any fixed answers, a place where I try to build meanings out of the fragments of life.

For me, the studio is a prism that gathers the different wavelengths of life and both breaks them into constituent parts, and weaves them back together in a slightly different form, one that allows new understandings and questions to arise. By folding domestic and work space together, I hope that these two spheres will become even more closely entwined.

Weldon Street studio, 2015

Weldon Street studio, 2015




The Mire

Noam Chomsky in his office, digital drawing, 2014

Noam Chomsky in his office, digital drawing, 2014

It has been several months since I posted to this blog, despite best intentions. The specific reasons are both numerous and unimportant, but in general, the hiatus has been brought on through a loss of focus in my work. This in turn has come through a failure to protect my time in the studio as rigorously as necessary, so that reflection is superseded by the imperative to “produce”. When time in the studio becomes a precious commodity, it seems wasteful to sit and think, scribbling in a notebook, rather than “work”.

Writing is a long and difficult process for me, so I tend to only write when I have something to get off my chest – an idea that won’t resolve itself any other way, dissatisfaction with an answer that I gave to a student, or some incident that I can complain about in my journal. These kinds of things become the problems that I can use as springboards for writing, the daily coal to feed the furnace. Sometimes though, the fuel piles up faster than it can be burned, or, when burned, it unleashes dirty and obscuring smoke.

I experience writer’s block not as a lack of ideas or anecdotes, but as a glut of ideas, irritants, or circumstances that are too fragmented or painful to get a hold of. The mire of life is an ooze that both sticks to everything and renders it too slippery to gain purchase. It alternately trickles through the fingers in wasted hours or seeps into the airway with choking anxiety. Attempts to contain the ooze are as useless as a tar sands tailing pond, so I depend on the studio and my journal to filter it, to provide a framework for making some sense of it. This is an improvised structure to begin with, and lack of maintenance weakens it precariously.

I hope that re-focusing in the studio will prompt a parallel re-ignition of this blog. I realize now that my activity in the studio has come to rely on the guidance that the thinking and reflection in the writing embodies, and that their mutual support is necessary. Life continues to unfold, whether we extract meaning from it or not, whether our attempts are adequate or not. Therefore, the work  also goes on.

Cornel West arrested, digital drawing, 2014

Cornel West arrested, digital drawing, 2014




Joseph Cowan, watercolour on paper, 2013

Joe Cowan aged 9, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

This summer I have been working on a project that has got me thinking a lot about narrative, and more specifically the ways in which words and pictures fit together, or don’t.

My work has flirted with narrative over the years, but recently I have been trying to keep it out of my paintings. I think the reason I have been trying avoid it is that I have been seeking to pare the paintings back to their basic elements: image, paint, scale. Narrative is a complicating factor. It is very easy to imply narrative with images, almost impossible to avoid it, in fact. But I have wanted to keep my paintings operating in a zone that doesn’t depend on story telling for their effect.

Rack, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, watercolour on paper, 2013

Rack, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

This new project, Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, is a collaboration with my wife, Paula Jean Cowan. We are putting it together as a website which will eventually have several chapters. The work is based on the biography of Paula’s paternal grandfather, who was sent to Canada from England as a British “home” child. Because his life overlapped many of the major historical events in the twentieth century it is an opportunity to explore that history on a cultural and personal level, in both words and pictures.

Albert County Shiretown, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

Albert County Shiretown, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

Home is a kind of illustrated story that slowly winds around one of the central events of Joe’s life, being sent across the Atlantic Ocean as a nine year old indentured servant. Because of the circumstances of his arrival in Canada and his own natural reticence, Joe’s biography has been largely unknown, even to his own family. In this context explicit narrative in the form of text, historical fact and archival images, is indispensable to the work. In some ways the work is also a way for my wife and I to narrate our own life together while exploring some of the “back story” of family history.

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (hair & spider), 2011

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (hair & spider), 2011

An earlier body of work that we created together,  May it Always Be, also had a narrative dimension, but it was more cryptic and less historically specific. It was a kind of call and response, an improvising play, but was definitely rooted in telling each other stories about our own life together.

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (whale & cloud), 2011

w/ Paula Jean Cowan, Untitled (whale & cloud), 2011

The new project demanded its own visual form, which in the end resembles a slide show. One of the challenges of the project is to combine words and pictures in a way that allows each to have its say without making the other redundant. Since the narrative is non-fiction, it made a certain amount of sense to present it in a kind of lecture format. The difficulty, but also the pay-off of this approach, is to allow quite mundane facts and events to begin to produce a metaphorical resonance.

Whereas the paintings I have been making in the last couple of years have been very deliberately introspective, working on a common project with someone I love brings a perspective that is oriented towards others. This communal orientation is reinforced by a narrative approach. Home is about trying to find a place in the world in the face of continuing uprootedness, both physical and emotional. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are a way of plotting the outlines of that place.

Bennett House, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2011

Bennett House, from Home: a short biography of Joseph Cowan, 2013

Independent Project

Jasper Johns, The Dutch Wives, 1975

Jasper Johns, The Dutch Wives, 1975

Walter Hopps: Jasper, from what point in your life would you date the beginning of your career, your sense that you were an artist, or going to be an artist?
Jasper Johns: Going to be an artist since childhood. Until about 1953 when it occurred me that there was a difference between going to be and being, and I decided I shouldn’t always be “going to be” an artist.

(Walter Hopps, “An Interview with Jasper Johns,” Artforum 3 no.6 (March 1965), reprinted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, MoMA, N.Y., p.106)

The two classes that I am teaching are currently undertaking “independent projects” where the expected learning outcome is beginning to treat their work as their work. And not only to treat it as if belongs to them physically, mentally, and emotionally, but also that it is their work, their lifelong ‘independent project’.

Of course, it is presumptuous, not to mention absurd, to talk about this as a ‘learning outcome’. At best, it may be the first glimmer of understanding that being an artist is not a skill set, a talent, or an aptitude, but instead a particular kind of orientation towards the world and life. When Jasper Johns says “it occurred me that there was a difference between going to be and being” it suggests that being an artist is literally a question of being, that it is a mode of existence as much as an occupation.

It can be a difficult pill to swallow. Students enter art training for a wide variety of reasons, often without even a vague idea of what is involved in being an artist, but with an interest in making things and a sense that they want to be creative. They are also burdened by the trite images and clichés that circulate in the culture regarding “self-expression” and artistic “freedom”. It can be hard to come to terms with the reality that freedom and expression are the results of responsibility, rigorous discipline, and seriousness of purpose.


I find that the fundamental problem of being an artist involves constantly needing to make choices about the right path to proceed upon, without anything to guide those choices except an elusive “vision” and the evidence of one’s work. Additionally, there is no easy path, or correct path, merely the one that lies ahead, opened or occluded by the accumulation of past decisions.

The first decision is a commitment to inhabit this mode of being fully, in the face of the very high probability that fortune and fame will not be the rewards that follow from this choice. And even if these material bonuses do arrive, the real (if less immediately tangible) reward for being an artist is existing in the world with the senses, the intellect, the emotions and spirit open and fully engaged. A possibly dubious prize when there are so many reasons to numb oneself against the world and so many available methods of anaesthesia.

The ‘independent project’ of art-making unfolds in relation to the life of the maker. As a teacher, I have become increasingly aware of the difference between how I perceive my life and art and how students (generally half my age) perceive theirs. When I was younger, the urgency that I brought to my work had to do with wanting certain things (e.g. career success, jobs, shows) immediately. Now the urgency comes from the fact that I am over forty years old, that I may live another forty if I’m lucky, and that the first twenty-five to thirty were more or less pissed away. This leaves very little time to work on my project before the deadline.

No longer wander at random. You shall not live to read your own memoirs or the acts of the ancient Romans and Greeks, or the selections from books which you were reserving for your old age. Hasten then to the goal which you have before you. Throw away vain hopes and come to your own aid, while you yet may, if you care at all for yourself.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Section III, p.32)

Reluctance Part II

FINA 3311_w/12 (in progress)

I have recently completed a large painting, FINA 3311_w/12. This painting is based on a snapshot that I took of my 3rd year painting class last semester and I undertook the work as a pedagogical experiment. I had assigned a portrait project where each class member had to paint a portrait of one of their colleagues. This had various functions, but primarily I was interested in students rooting their paintings within an immediate context that didn’t involve  internet plundering or a reliance on pop culture. [I don’t have anything against these strategies as such, I was simply distressed at what I saw as a somewhat lazy, default practice among the students]. As part of this assignment I proposed that I would paint a portrait of the whole class.

Edouard Manet, Young Lady in 1866, 1866

Portraiture has played almost no role in my own practice, although there are many portraits that I admire (Manet’s Young Lady in 1866, being a prime example). Figures generally appear in my work as a by-product of their appearance in source photos. The problem, for me, comes down to questions of likeness: to what extent does portraiture depend on a recognizable likeness? and to what extent is it a strictly imitative or mimetic practice?

FINA 331_w/12 (detail)

In making this painting there was a an interesting tension between the tedious process of producing a likeness and the pleasure in making it come off in a surprising way. Engaging in an “exercise” gave a certain kind of permission to relinquish expectations and see what happens. As always when I finish a painting, I am ambivalent about this work: parts of it are painfully illustrative, others bear the look of too much effort to get it “right”; but, there are little moments that I think are not too bad and others that seem to suggest future possibilities.

I think that this work fails as a painting. As a whole it doesn’t move beyond a fairly mundane description of appearances, even though there are certain passages that do. As a pedagogical exercise it fares somewhat better, in that it has created a kind of dialogue with students as a fellow producer tackling the same problem, with relatively similar kinds of uneven results. Likewise there are some things that I have learned about how I paint that I am not necessarily thrilled about. For instance, I am all too susceptible to the “reality effect” of the photo source, where I find myself aping the source material instead of making a painting. This is particularly troublesome as I am deeply reluctant to admit that “realism” has any bearing on my work.

FINA 3311_w/12, 2012

On the other hand, the process of making this painting has brought to light new possibilities and challenges for my practice. Painting my students left me with the sense that certain kinds of feelings are omitted from my work because I rarely use the literal aspects of my life as direct subject matter. Can the daily life that a person lives be pictured without images of the people and settings that make up that life? If not, is one obliged to either include these or avoid claims for the work relating to that life?

The failure of this work serves as both a warning and a tantalizing promise.

Reluctance Part I

The Life We Used to Love, oil and wax on canvas, 48 x 48″, 2007

Over the past few months I have been trying to resolve some questions about a turn in my practice. This turn revolves around two points which have become more or less impossible for me to ignore: 1) that I have become a landscape painter 2) that realism has been an increasingly important part of the dialogue in my work. Each of these points presents itself in the face of deep reluctance on my part to acknowledge either one.

These are fairly banal realizations in themselves, but what I find interesting is that the work has taken this direction, if not exactly against my will, then without my conscious intention. It seems to be the result of trying to set aside certain assumptions about what “advanced” painting looks like, that, in turn, is a result of a need to distance myself from the look of the “contemporary”.

I am reluctant to self-identify as a landscape painter for a number of reasons. First, there is a sense that this genre has been emptied by amateurs and Sunday painters, by endless calendar reproductions of Monet’s Waterlilies and Haystacks, by Thomas Kinkade and his simpering cynicism; in short that it has become the domain of sentimental hackery (not that I think Monet is a hack, simply that the omnipresence of calendar reproductions has led to a misappropriation of his work).

Second, I am very conscious of the legacy of landscape painting as a trope of Canadian Identity as well as the underlying colonial project that it has become associated with.  At one point, this attachment to Canadian-ness seemed quaint to me, but with the actual landscape in such jeopardy from our endless greed for natural resources, Canadian identification with wilderness and the “North” seems hypocritical and vaguely sinister. So for me, making pictures of landscapes that inevitably become positioned in relation to this legacy is highly problematic and fraught with anxiety.

The Pit (Chevy Mudbog), acrylic on canvas, 42 x 60″, 2006

The landscape has entered my work surreptitiously, through the use of photo sources. It has shifted slowly from background to foreground, inexorably occupying more and more space both conceptually and pictorially. This shift is correlated with moving from an urban centre in southwestern Ontario to a small town in rural New Brunswick. It is difficult for me to express exactly what this change of setting has meant to my thinking and my practice, except that the landscape has seemed much more tangible, vital, and pressing once I was removed from an urban environment.

On the sea floor, low tide, Long Island, Five Islands, Nova Scotia, 2009

This has little to do with the physical beauty of the landscape, although it is beautiful. Instead, I think it has to do with the sense that I am somehow more definitely placed, that I live in a somehow more direct relationship with everything around me. I have no doubt that this experience is completely possible in different contexts, and I make no claim for “getting back to nature”. However, it is hard to deny that the experience of standing on the ocean floor near the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, when the tide on the Bay of Fundy is out, produces a palpable feeling both of one’s cosmic insignificance and of one’s utter rootedness in the physical world.

studio view, Love Does No Good I (in progress), 2011

Although I am a reluctant landscape painter, I have to accept that the conditions of my everyday life are what form the ground of my practice. As an implacable manifestation of material reality, the landscape provides a check on my big ideas. As a source of visual profusion and experiential data, the generosity of the natural world is unmatched. The process of finding adequate analogues for these conditions is a different, and perhaps more tangled proposition.

studio view, Love Does No Good I (in progress), 2011

A View

For an artist, a worldview is a tool or a means, like a hammer in the hands of a mason, and the only reality is the work of art itself. (Osip Mandelstam, Quoted by Ilya Kaminsky, Stolen Air: selected poems of Osip Mandelstam, xxx – xxxi)

What is at stake in a worldview? Meaning. This blog was begun in order to try to honestly assess my practice and my thoughts, a kind of meditation or confession without absolution or exhibitionist thrill.

But, in order to approach this, the motivation of the practice must be brought to light – not what I want to accomplish with my practice, but what drives it. What do I get out of my work that is independent of how it functions outside of the studio?

A worldview implies taking a position from which to view the world. For me, this involves trying to understand both the world at large and my own interior world. These are not separate spheres, but mutually permeable zones of experience.

Although my work has taken many different stylistic forms, at root, I think its most consistent aspect has been the feeling or impulse that feeds it: a kind of grasping towards existence, or a construction of a version of my understanding of existence, that has been approached through various pictorial and material strategies. Is this what Mandelstam is referring to when he speaks of a ‘worldview’?

Whatever “this” is, that is what ought to come out in the work. Why is making my work the best way to occupy myself as a person in this world?

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