The Painting Business

big paintings outside copy

I have a new show of my paintings in oil up at the Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara. It’s shocking to realize that I’ve been in their care for over twenty years, and this is my tenth major show with them.

big paintings out back3

Every time a show is coming up for me, I set out a considerable display of new paintings in my back yard for the gallery representative to come out and select the pieces.

Display

I hope for about a third of what I present to be chosen to show in the gallery, but sometimes it’s less. I’m always nervous about this, because I have my favorites, and the way I work, with several distinct styles and different palettes, means that selecting paintings that will hang well together, and not claw each other off the walls, is a challenge.

My personal desire is to have a range of sizes, approaches, and palettes represented, and I favor keeping prices down. There are curious prejudices though, where some buyers will look at a lower-priced work and decide the price is its real value. Not so. Paintings in a show like this are always underpriced. Each one is far more than the hours of work and research it took to paint. Each one represents the artist’s life to that moment, and is made by the tides of all the past. Because of this, any hand-made piece of excellence should  rise over time in value. And as for me, I’d prefer my small paintings to be a gateway ‘drug’, reasonably affordable, so that my paintings will go out into the world and be enjoyed by all kinds of people.

studio replete

Fifty percent of each sale goes to the gallery, which may seem high to you, but you must remember that the gallery has a range of upkeep costs– advertising, staffing and security among them. It’s a complicated business, and requires expertise and judgment. Galleries come and go at the drop of a hat. The staff need to have a good sense of people, and when a strong match might be made between a particular work and a particular customer. I’ve tried selling my work, but I am untalented at this matchmaking. Looking at what the gallery people do, I can only feel intense gratitude that I’m represented by them.

When you think about it, a painting should keep its person company for a lifetime.

 

 

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NO KISS FOR MAMA

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I started tutoring back when our daughter was in second grade. She’s in graduate school, going for a PhD now, and I’m still tutoring.

Through my own years of school I always felt math-impaired, and even failed an algebra class at Phillips Exeter (which I attended for my final two years of high school.) So, when I started tutoring a motley group from my daughter’s elementary school, my ploy was to get another parent to come and cover the math questions at our tutoring table. Honestly, this didn’t work, because most of the time all the other parents were too busy, so the most gifted of the kids ended up being our de facto math expert– and since that individual later became a Kumon tutor as soon as she was of legal age, you may be assured that none of the kids at our table missed a thing.

But I learned by watching her, that something had happened over the years in my brain. Maybe missed or laggardly connections finally spliced together with age? I discovered that I understood algebra far better than I ever had during those exhausting panicky hours of doing and re-doing my homework problems in my late teens. At last I could see it. So when our gifted friend and our daughter went on to other schools, and I transferred to tutoring friends’ children at the elementary through high school levels on a volunteer basis, I took over even the dreaded algebra.

I’m not great at it, but I can do it, and I think my awareness of my faults makes me better able to explain how. I’ve gone down so many wrong ways in my mind, dealing with algebra, that I think I have a feeling for how the errors work and how to avoid them.

So, if you have a younger child and can accommodate an afternoon a week of a homework club, I cheer you on. Make sure that the kids who come are of both sexes. Get a sense that each one really wants to be there to improve their work for school– parents are not reliable on this issue. You need kids who are different from each other. Different backgrounds, different socio-economic situations, best of all, different languages and cultures. Stretch, take risks. Not just your own child’s favorites! And like Fight Club– no one should talk about Homework Club outside of Homework Club, because you don’t want parents begging you to babysit their kids for long afternoons when the kids don’t want to be there, and you don’t want them to be there. Consult with the teachers about whom to invite, and don’t take it personally if kids drop out when they discover that you really mean them to sit at a table and do homework!

Sweeten the deal with home-made snacks– not too healthy, though. Consider cookies– made of fresh butter, respect and affection, hot from the oven. Or hot yeasty rolls served with butter. When you do this, you are making magic. No stabilizers, no fillers, none of that funny preservative taste that comes with most commercial baked goods. Give a good welcome, and a warm one. You will be a cheerleader in part, chivvying, encouraging, being a parent in short– but to all equally. In fact, neglect your own child a bit during the sessions– they’ll value you the more for that! It’s a great chance to coach your own kid in manners towards guests— take the last seat, pick up after your guests, speak softly, don’t correct others in public, take your first cookie after others are served.

Chat at the table is fine, as long as work is being done. Comparing notes on science projects can be extremely helpful and bypass or ameliorate the nightmare of parent-produced science projects. Brainstorming, planning, helping each other, crossing difficult divides. If things are stiff, talk about the news of the day and make it exciting, important, challenging. Show that you care, and that’s a civics lesson.

You will find you have a far better idea of what the school expects and when. You’ll know why your child didn’t do well on a project. You will gain a reflection of what school is really like, from this crowd. You will be incensed by some of the misinformation that is being given to our children in our schools because many instructional materials are too simplified and condescending. Remember that kids can be engaged by detail, by stories, by the energy of the particular. In history, you can make it personal. Ask what they think their mothers would say, if Dad picked up his pitchfork and announced he thought he should go fight for freedom– leaving her to take care of all the livestock and the failing well, and the crops….

And here I do caution– don’t own the products of these children. You can guide, suggest, tutor in techniques, tell stories to enliven understanding, but you do not fix anyone’s homework. You cannot give  the answers, only suggest how to find them. If they forget their work on the table when they go, do not bring it to school for them. It’s such a difficult thing, but so necessary, to allow failure. The pain caused now by habits of carelessness, helps kids avoid greater pain in times to come.

Now, I am tutoring a mother with her son. For her, English is the second language. I tutor the son in English also, along with science and math/algebra. We cook together as an illustration of principles ranging from handling fractions to understanding chemistry, while practicing conversation. Multiplying amounts to increase the number of cookies produced, adds incentive to get the formula right. Taking a taste of baking soda makes the point that quantities and proportions are important. But my best idea so far? Having mother instruct son in her language using a marvelous book by Tomi Ungerer– Ningun Beso Para Mama(No Kiss for Mama,) about a really bad little cat with an attitude, and his mother with hers. It’s funny, snarky, and while a kid’s book, it condescends to no one.

I assigned the son to read and translate the book with his mother, so mother became his instructor in Spanish. His translation of the text into English, increased her mastery of English. While familial respect is already strong in the family, this arrangement helps to reverse roles while both sides learn. Balance.

They laughed together telling me about it– told me how this young man’s elder brother  and brother’s friend got curious and involved, and then the father wanted to know what was amusing them so much and listened too. Made me feel I’d done something right.

What a wonderful gift, Tomi Ungerer!

 

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Process

I gave in to the sketchbook idea after realizing that our old truck’s gas mileage book kept traveling to my studio to have some notations converted into a painting. Plus the book was crammed with little lines and shadings, the heavy-set man at the gas pump or the palm trees in the night lighting of the station, so the gas amounts and mileages were fighting for their survival. Now I use a sketchbook in which I jot everything from color roughs of landscapes to simple line drawings of our cats, and this travels on my lap when we drive, especially on longer trips. I’m accustomed now to sketching on the fly, sometimes putting a few color notes, some perfectly non-technical ones like noting that the shadows have the hue of spilled ink on a wood table, or that an old leaf matches my cat Porthos’ eyes.

I prefer to paint alla prima, which maximizes the clear brilliance of my paint, which lies on an untinted ground with the light penetrating through the skin of paint and bouncing off the white gesso beneath. A colored ground would solve all color problems, because it would alter every hue laid over it, but colored grounds also can show through in time since even oils become more translucent with the passing years. So I try to solve all color issues on the run, on the fly, and I paint as though I will never return to change a thing. But in all of this, I have been experimenting with a wet-in-wet technique that lets me rough in the dark shapes I want and then paint into them. This makes me commit to a bold execution and also lets the light and dark work into each other fresh on the surface.

I wanted to study and paint the rich power of a field of grass, so here are my first five minutes on the board.

One

I hate anything tentative or uncommitted. Five minutes later–

TwoAnd then give me a couple of hours…

The grasses

 

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One place, two ideas

I went to a cliff over the sea and considered the Monterey cypresses standing in attitudes. Here are the two oil paintings that came of it.

number one cypresses

 

number two cypresses

For my part I find it fascinating what shapes my brain seized upon in each of these, what’s missing, what’s not. One is brutally simple, almost like a wood block, the other fretted and trammeled with the little urgencies of branches and twigs as they trap the negative spaces like prey. I also see some darkness in the eye on the second one, the true brilliance of the day didn’t make it through, though I can argue that’s not important– both are interpretations, my own translations of the place and time.

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The hope of rain

Today they promised rain; they sent warnings of flooding and potential mudslides. I look to heavy clouds upon the mountains over the city with anticipation. We have been so dry, for years now, counting each drop. Might this year restore some balance to our water supply?

How often they say rain will come— several inches, beware of flooding! Then the storm shifts away and we are left without even a tenth of an inch to savor.

I walk through the orchard. Yesterday we planted three new bare root fruit trees, two apples: a Sundowner and a Gordon, plus a Babcock peach. That brought home to me how dry the earth under its mulch actually was, a sobering realization.

Our neighbor Jaime has been hauling manure from the stables to our property for some weeks now— it saves the stables haulage fees, and I know how to value such largesse. But I’ve had so many other ideas and plots and plans over Christmas and New Years, that now I see the promise in the sky and realize I have a lot of work to do. You can’t just dump mounds of manure and stable sweepings all over your orchard, because it mats and repels the water falling from the sky. So I determine that I’ll do my best to move the majority of the manure sweepings under the canopy of certain trees. Not under the bare-branched fruit trees like the peaches and apples and plums, but under the citrus who are green all year and shelter the ground with their leaves anyway. The sweepings can be tucked under and no harm done, so long as you keep the base of each trunk free.

The rest of the best manure, with the least of shavings and the most of ‘horse buns’ need to be shoveled into my wheelbarrow, then taken and scattered over the main garden bed. I have visions of broccoli, escarole, summer eggplants and tomatoes, string beans and fava beans, all sorts of happy plants reaching green in my imagination.

I know most gardeners don’t work in skirts these days, but I much prefer it. Superior freedom of movement, and even though sometimes my skirts are moving in one direction and I in another, that’s just because I don’t like to move slowly. Skirts don’t bind in such circumstances. So I do the dance of the manure this afternoon, shoveling and raking at the fastest pace I can to clear the way for the rain. 

A hot shower later, here I sit in a glow of accomplishment, listening hopefully to the soft shift and whisper of raindrops through the leaves outside. May it be a long rain and a deep one.

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Home Candied Citrus Peels

Why,‘ you say, ‘when I can just go to that display in the grocery store where I can buy the already candied, immortal, deep-dyed red, pale yellow (we won’t talk about what that color might resemble) or poison-green kind?

Because,’ I say, ‘you heard yourself.’

drained peels

Besides, the commercial chunks of citron are thick, with a taste of medicine, and they cost a vast deal for something that comes from a part of the fruit you normally discard. If you make your own peels at home, all you need are a batch of scrubbed oranges or grapefruit or lemons, (best of all a combination of all three,) plus sugar, water and the time to do it. The last often sets people aback, but remember that if you need to, you can set the partially processed peels aside in the fridge at any stage in this process except for the candying stage. Once you combine sugar syrup and peels you should complete that particular task without trying to take a break.

But don’t imagine that you need to hover! While the peels simmer you can be doing any sort of other job the holidays require, from writing holiday cards to playing Sudoku. Just use a timer and it’s all good. The house will smell amazing, too.

Home candied peels are the reason some traditional desserts used to be popular and are no more. Or worse, they’ve become jokes. Wasn’t it Elizabeth Moon who used a fruitcake trope in one of her science fiction novels–I shall have to search my shelves to check that, but I believe I’m right. Classics like fruitcake and plum pudding made with real home candied citrus reveal a fragrant, sharp citrus brilliance that isn’t even on the horizon for a dessert made with store-bought citron.

So, how do you start? Peel your citrus, trying to leave the majority of the white under-peel behind. Don’t get obsessive, you want some white, so a vegetable peeler will not work here; simply remember that the main bitterness lies in the white part, and that its texture is stodgy. Then cross cut your peels into reasonable bits– maybe one and a half inches by under a half inch. Again, not too small. You want to be able to recognize what you’re eating! Measure your amount, because this will determine later how much syrup to make. (I normally don’t bother to make less than four cups at a go.) Then bring the peels to a boil in a pot of cold water, with enough water to cover the peels by about an inch.

simmering peels

As soon as a boil is achieved, turn down for a five minute simmer. After that, drain, rinse and repeat the simmering process two more times. If you want less bitter you can repeat two more times for a total of five simmers, but the peels are fairly soft, so don’t overdo this part of the process. 

Make up a syrup of 1/2 cup white granulated sugar to 1/4 cup of water for each cup of peel, bring up to heat to dissolve the granules, then add the peels. Cook together at medium heat, stirring gently at intervals, until the syrup has almost vanished. This is the slow part of the job. Don’t let them burn, but in the early part you can leave them on a low simmer for five minutes or more at a time, between stirs. I use wooden chopsticks to lessen the risk of any metallic taste, and because it is the gentlest stir I can accomplish.

The photo below shows how the syrup is vanishing into the peels and the moisture into the air.

peels in syrup getting dryer

Turn out on to a pan lined with aluminium and oiled with a tasteless vegetable oil such as grape seed oil. Let cool and dry. You can leave this overnight or longer, but do not be surprised if the human residents of your household make inroads on the peels. The candy tastes rather nice, and the citrus bitter against sweet is distinctive. The product will be reasonably soft and gooey, full of flavor as you can see below. A bit mixed into the stuffing for a goose or chicken will be a good reward. Now you can use them in any cooking project that asks for candied peels or citron, or crystallized fruit.

peels done

Some folk like to try and separate out the peel pieces and dry them until they are leathery and can be dipped into chocolate. I can’t stand that much sweetness in one mouthful, but I pass on the idea in case it delights you.

If you end up on the Great British Baking Show, bring some home-candied peels along to surprise the judges, and you might actually win a round on this transformative flavor alone!

 

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Robin’s chip cookies

chip cookies

I promised a friend that I would post my recipe for the so often requested chocolate chip cookies that I bring to the College. One comment— note my reasons for using an egg substitute, and also note that I have optional additives to increase the fiber content. I do not find that either of these make the cookies taste burdensomely ‘good for you’ and indeed with all that butter and the masses of sugar, they aren’t! But I find that no one seems to notice these extras in consuming the squashy comforting sweet cookies, so if you want, try them and let me know what your response is….

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES—Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit

1 cup butter at room temperature

1 1/4 cups brown sugar

1/2 cup white sugar

2 large eggs (I use an egg substitute from Trader Joe’s)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream butter and sugars together. beat in eggs until well mixed and mix in vanilla extract

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Sift together:

2 3/4 cups regular flour

1 1/2  teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

If you like you can use half whole wheat flour, and possibly add a tablespoon of psyllium husk.

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Add the flour mixture by spoonfuls to the butter and egg mixture, until well-combined.

Mix in 2 cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips. or you can divide the dough and make one half the recipe with butterscotch chips or white chocolate chips. White ones do best with the addition of toasted macadamia nuts as well.

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Place spoonfuls of dough in a baking tray, about 2 Tablespoons each.  Bake for about ten minutes and check. If you want soft squashy cookies, wait until edges are browned and middle top has darkened and dried. If you want squashy cookies, experiment— it may take as little as 8 minutes. If using real eggs, do not try to undercook the cookies for the squashy kind because there’s danger of bacterial illness resulting from the undercooked egg.

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