Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



December 2008

"Artists' studios and scientists' laboratories share similarities…, with a large numbers of projects going on at once, in various stages of incompletion. Both require specialized tools, and the results are…open to interpretation. What artists and scientists have in common is the ability to live in an open-ended state of interpretation and reinterpretation of the products of our work."


Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Plume Books, 2007, page 5.

A New Tool for Reflecting on Artmaking

Dear Reader,

When I returned to practicing art after a 36 year hiatus, I knew it would be important to keep track of my progress. In 1998, when I would set up my easel and lay out my paints in the back hall under the skylight, I did not know how long I could or would keep at it.

In the opening quotation, Levitin discusses the common ground shared by artists and scientists. In 1998, the research scientist side of me that was nurtured in graduate school became part of my artist's regimen. Keeping a visual record of my work seemed like the right thing to do. Why? Looking at several "specimens" could teach me about my work: patterns of success/failure, style shifts, subject preferences. I let each painting talk to me in as objective a way as possible. After all, it was my work, so reflecting on it certainly was not easy or value-free. I had to try and be as honest and critical as I would be with others' work when I was reviewing my slides. Keeping a record of my work is a way of taking myself seriously as an artist. If I do not, why should anyone else?

Fast forward to October of this year. I saw an advertisement for a digital film scanner and finally decided to invest in one. I am aware of the digital revolution, even though I am suspicious of it. For years, I simply loaded my slides into a carousel or a viewer and have been instantly gratified to see my paintings (if the bulb hasn't burned out). It seems like a simple technology. But it has become impossible to get my slides processed locally (instant gratification at work again), so warming to the digital scanner was inevitable.

My new tool for reflection arrived, and I embarked on an obsessive project that took me about three weeks. Every available minute, I scanned slides of my paintings. When the scanner did not give me a sharp or color-true image, I turned to photographs and my printer's scanner. Images were sent into folders created on a memory stick purchased for the occasion.

As the last eleven years flashed before me, I knew I had to write about the experience. I jotted constantly over the three weeks. Here are a few things that emerged.

  • To scan or not to scan - a quick count of my slides totaled over 350 possible images! Could I or should I leave any out of my oeuvre? I decided that I should consider it, at least for the purposes of this project. I was overwhelmed at the beginning because I was working on a lot of other projects, too. For starters, I decided to leave out my sets of Artist's Trading Cards (a Google-worthy term, if you are unfamiliar with what they are). I also left out a series of small collages I made from works on paper that failed overall, but had some interesting passages. I was left with over 300 images.

  • Practically speaking, I have become a much better slide-taker-photographer of my work. Early slides show too many paintings that I did level or that were not flat against a surface. Experience counts here. I had to a lot to learn.

  • I noticed that some years, I destroyed more work than I kept. When I finish a piece, it is necessary that I love it. That honeymoon period will not last. While I may not destroy it immediately, if I think it is a failure, I reuse the canvas or board for another painting. Sometimes, I even paint over the newer image. I like the textures caused by the one or two failed paintings. If it is a work on paper, I tear it apart for a collage. It is common practice among artists. Restorers using x-rays frequently find entire paintings underneath.

  • I wish I could remember who said this about the writing process (probably Donald M. Murray): "You have to write badly to write well." This certainly applies to all artmaking. I think this is why so many people decide not to make art. Failure is not fun, but it is instructive. Most people want to feel good about what they create. Frequently, the feel-good thing has to do with relying on others' opinions about their work. So, they stop before they really begin the journey of artmaking.

  • I noticed that I was first obsessed by faces and figures, then places. Lots of imaginary people, as well as real ones, emerged in my work. When I moved into landscapes, they became more and more abstract. That's where I am now: abstract, stylized landscapes with animal and figurative references.

  • I know now why I continued to paint after such a long period of looking (museums, galleries) without painting. During the late nineties, I did some VERY strong work. My technique may have improved over these eleven years, but some of my earliest work could not be improved. My distorted self-portrait, "Today," is a masterpiece. Those who know me will find that last statement uncharacteristically immodest, but if I can identify my weaker work, I had better be able to pick out my strongest.

  • I surprised myself with the number of series I have done: self-portraits, landscape mosaics, environments, homages, reciprocal painting/poems, pulse triptychs, rocks and sun effects. As of last week's painting, I think I am beginning another series: grotesque figures.

  • Seeing my artistic life flash before me brought back memories: my first painting in 1998 was "River Arno, Florence," inspired by a trip taken while I was still teaching and living a very different life. I look at "The Harbor" and remember that I was in the middle of painting it when I learned I had cancer. I returned to my easel determined to "make this the most beautiful painting I have ever made." I see at "September 11, 2001" and relive that experience.

A new tool, like the slide scanner, was useful on many levels because I looked beyond its original function. What tools help you to move further along in your artmaking journey? Contact me: