Have you ever aspired to be a “professional” artist only to find an aspect of that path too unacceptable? Maybe the thought of compromising your ideals to get paid for being ‘creative’ extracts the marrow from your soul.
Sitting down at Douglas Greer’s kitchen table at his home just outside the San Jose area, MOT heard the story of an unexpected rescue from the misguided idea of a ‘normal’ life. Childhood dreams of becoming an artist, postponed to avoid the loss of creative freedom for financial gain, found their way back again. Smoked gouda on Triscuits and Austrailian shiraz never tasted so good.
~ BACKGROUND ~
Moments Of Truth ~ If you would, please describe your main creative endeavors?
Douglas Greer ~ Well, it’s watercolors, in one word.
MOT ~ Has this changed or evolved over time?
DG ~ Yes, actually when I first started when I was pretty young, I tended to work more in other mediums. Say, for example, in college I worked more in oils. But then, when I quit to become a regular person and raise a family, I didn’t paint at all. I didn’t start painting again until I went to Ireland in 1989. The medium that I happened to pick up at that time was watercolors, and have since stuck with it.
Within the watercolor department, there is sort of an evolution. You may start off, not knowing exactly what you’re doing and then begin to evolve in a number of ways. One is subject matter; what do you paint? There’s standard things like still life and landscapes or portraits, something like that. What you do is work through a range of options until you settle on what eventually becomes what you’re most excited about painting. That’s the way it works, of course it seems logical that you’d want to use the subject matter you find interesting. Maybe portraits or still life’s aren’t your thing, so you don’t do those. That’s a key as well as your palette.
I happened to take a class while I was over in Ireland, the teacher – a noted watercolorist in Ireland – limited his palette to three colors: red, blue, yellow. There’s your basic primary colors, and he’d mix everything with those. I tried that for a while but eventually settled with six colors. Now I use six. The reason being is that for me, the three are not quite adequate to capture the full range. For example, on reds there’s a distinct difference between sort of an orangish-red and rose-red. In blues, there’s a cobalt blue but also the thalo-blue or even warmer the aquamarine blue. So it becomes difficult to distinguish the aquamarine in the sky and then again just a cobalt blue doesn’t give the complete sense of water. In each of the three primary colors, what evolved was essentially two reds, two blues and two yellows. From there I’ve been able to do anything. It is still a limited palette, but not quite. I don’t think you can get as genuine an orange red out of a rose red and vice versa, or out of just a standard yellow.
So yea, the answer is yes, you evolve in these various ways.
MOT ~ How long had it been that you quit painting or expressing yourself in creative ways before you got back into it? And what was it that triggered the return?
DG ~ It was just pure happenstance. My wife wanted to take a class in folk dancing. . . let me back up a bit. I was teaching in Ireland at the time under the Fulbright; we were over in Galway which is over on the west coast of Ireland. The local high-school had these adult classes and my wife wasn’t driving the car. It was built for the opposite side of the road, six gears and so on, so she really didn’t want to deal with driving. She wanted me to drive her to this class, which was about a good hour’s drive away. I didn’t see driving there, then back, then there again to get her back home again. So I thought to take a look at the catalog and see if there was something during that same time that I might like to take. Then there’d be no need to do the double trip.
So, I was looking at the catalog and thought, “well, Kelly dancing is really not me.”(we both break into a solid chuckle imagining this guy doing some traditional Irish dancing) I said “Hey, there’s a water color class. I used to paint all the time.” At one time I even thought of becoming an artist. So I decided to take that, just pure luck, happenstance. You never really know about these things. (The sound in his voice stills echoes a kind of amazement about that)
MOT ~ What do you think it is about painting, and painting in watercolors that has held your attention?
DG ~ It’s hard for me to explain. Acrylics are…. Sort of plastic. Oil is nice, but it tends to take a long time to dry. Watercolors are a real challenge, they’re tricky and not very forgiving. So in a way they tend to be very easy but fun. The effects one can get for what one wants are nice. Also, to me it’s the light that comes through the paper. What happens in watercolors is that it’s basically transparent. Of course you could go with gauche, which is more opaque. With transparent watercolors you use the paper to light up the whole piece. It’s like a luminescent. It provides you with lighting effects in the painting that I don’t believe you can achieve otherwise. For example water, I like to do paintings with water. Light is critical to interesting watercolors regardless of the subject you’re trying to paint. It may take a little while to get used to the light is not white paint but the paper.
Think of the sun out there in space, it’s absolutely cold, frigid, but then once the light hits something, like your own face or the planet and comes through the window of your home and just heats every thing up. It’s just amazing. So light provides life to a painting as well as to life on earth. It’s the light in the paper that really kind of fascinates me and I enjoy the challenge of working with it.
MOT ~ Where did you grow up, and did that community influence your interests do you think?
DG ~ I grew up in Portland, Oregon, in a section called Mount Tabor. Leaving the house out the back door, through the back gate I’d step right into Mt Tabor. A place where there were trees, fields, and reservoirs. A lot of water supplied for the city of Portland was stored there. I used to pick blackberries up there, chase pheasants, watch lots of wildlife. Yeah, that affected me. I became very accustomed to being in the woods, to being outdoors.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with “Uncle Remis” but in “Uncle Remis” Tales, like ‘Brair Rabbit’ and all that, there’s this thing about a laughing place. I think it’s important for everyone to have their laughing place. A ‘laughing place’ is somewhere that a person feels comfortable, where they can laugh and have a good time and mine happens to be outdoors.
Certain scenes in nature, maybe a single plant, tree or single animal, that I’d paint! It’s not necessarily landscapes, it’s something that really catches my eye, and what I try to do is to convey that to someone looking at the picture. I’m not trying to replicate the scene, just trying to point it out. Hopefully they’ll say “I’m going to watch for that,” or be more open to that when out in nature. I’m not trying to paint the moon, but to point it out and say “hey, take a look at the moon!” Part of the process is one that ends up shunning human influence or human participation. Generally I don’t like to do people or buildings. It would pretty much ruin it for me if the moon had a big ‘Coca-cola’ sign on it. So what I attempt to do when I’m pointing something out is to take it as it comes and not try to improve it with some human element. But a lot of people like ‘Coca-cola’ signs or houses, so they do that.
MOT ~ Do you think over the course of learning watercolors or overall, have you had any mentors, guides be them directly or indirectly?
DG ~ Oh yeah, there’s some great watercolorists. Hopper (Edward Hopper first became known for his etchings and later in his life, 1923, moved into the medium of watercolors) you’d say is one and some watercolors from Andrew Wyeth and the result is that you’re influenced by these masters of the medium. There’s no avoiding that. After awhile, of course, you start to develop your own thing and not paint what someone else has painted.
MOT ~ Did you notice this as a gradual change or did it hit like “puck” and happen fast? Or did it require very focused conscious efforts to develop your own style?
DG ~ I’d say it’s more a gradual thing. Some people may do it in a deliberate fashion and quickly. For me it was gradual. For a while you’re just groping around; like we were talking a moment ago about evolution.
Starting out, you don’t necessarily know what excites you. When you are taking a class or workshops, you’re often doing something somebody else has told you to do. So you’re not really picking out your own subject. They’ll say, “okay, go cut out a picture from a magazine” or they’ll set up a still life for you. Then at the end of the session they’ll critique everyone’s work or something like that. In these instances, you’re trying to do what the instructor is telling you to do.
That’s okay up to a point, but once you’ve gotten that feeling for mixing your colors and practice drawing the end result is that you develop somewhat of your own style unconsciously. If you do it on a conscious level, you’re affected more heavily by previous influences or noted people. “I was really impressed by so and so and I’ll be doing more of this.”
~ INSPIRATION ~
MOT ~ What is it that might inspire you to create these images, to put time and energy into the effort of painting in watercolors? It sounds like it could be something intrinsic you’d like to share images of nature that really strike you with others to some extent?
DG ~ You have an idea in mind, sometimes you manage to achieve that and sometimes you don’t. Even sometimes you do and it turns out to be a bad result. There’s lots of bad paintings. Georgia O’keefe had a lot of bad paintings, and the ones that are familiar to everybody are paintings that are good. Some painters would actually destroy what they thought were their bad paintings. As I recall, De Kooning was that way, he’d burn the paintings he didn’t like. So you just have to keep painting and in some ways you have to go through the bad ones in order to reach those good ones, so you don’t get too disappointed.
Every once in a while, it turns out that you say “wow, I got that feeling that I wanted, what I felt when I saw that scene.” That’s what really keeps you going, that’s the way I look at it any way. I’m not really trying to please anybody but myself.
MOT ~ Does an audience work into this at all for you?
DG ~ That’s kind of like what. . . well, to direct them in the same sense I would to see the scene. The word ‘epiphany’ is a good one to describe the moment. You work at painting in a certain way to get the person to see what you’re seeing, but it’s not necessarily that you’re trying to please that person. Like doing a vase of flowers because you know somebody’d like to see that. It’s more of what gave me a charge or buzz. If someone sees that in the painting, great, or maybe they don’t. I’m not trying to get anybody to buy it or anything like that, so it just depends. The main goal you strive for is really the feeling, and get the person who is viewing the painting to get that same feeling about it when they see what ever it may be out there in nature. Or you get them to open up and start noticing more scenes out in nature.
Like just looking at a tree. A lot of people don’t really appreciate what a tree looks like; the shape of the tree, how the tree behaves in the wind or the color of the tree. Trees are generally all green, but there are lots of different greens: grey green, yellow green and so on. Just trying to get a person to look for these kinds of things. Not too many people just paint ‘A’ tree.
MOT ~ Do you ever feel like those creative energies, while in flux, may be high or low and how do you deal with that? Do you have some way to recharge?
DG ~ It’s a combination. One thing you have to do is to be out in nature if your going to be painting nature. You have to be out there, and open to seeing scenes that have great potential in terms of the painting. The recharging is a lot of just being out in nature and seeing scenes. You’ll see a scene and just get recharged, saying “wow, that’s a trippy scene,” but it won’t necessarily be something you really want to paint. In other cases, it may be something you’d like to paint and it may or may not work, just being out there and seeing things you really can’t imagine seeing.
For example, we were in Alaska on this small boat with about twelve people. Frederick Sound is the specific area, a place where the humpback whales hang out a lot. We were just drifting for several hours in the middle of Fredrick Sound. The sun was going down and reached an angle that the light would strike the spouts of the whales in a way that created rainbows. Imagine, surrounded by whales, and there’s flashes of rainbows over them every few minutes. The water is calm, you see these explosions of rainbows over these whales. Just seeing the whales alone is a real thrill. Seeing a rainbow is generally a thrill. How often do you put them together? Well, you don’t put them together unless you’re out in the middle of Frederick Sound, surrounded by dozens of giant humpback whales while sitting in a little boat just at the right moment to have the sun hit that certain angle to create rainbows over these whales. It’s really quite amazing.
So you can take that, get charged and just enjoy that shock that says “man, that’s really amazing!” From there, you try to put that into a painting. Watercolors are easier for making rainbows then say oils or acrylics, but it may or may not be successful. I’ve done a painting of that, but I don’t know that it’s fully successful so I’ll probably come back to it.
Now if you can do a painting and capture that feeling that you had, yea, that would be terrific and give a buzz so as to recharge me too. Even if you don’t succeed, it’s been a terrific experience!
MOT ~ Do you imagine yourself having specific creative goals? Or say, challenge yourself in a way to keep expanding your abilities? Or maybe you could talk about goals you’ve set in the past that you’ve managed to achieve?
DG ~ Well, the goals, it’s kind of like with technique. You work at becoming good with your technique but also capture something special. For me, it’s finding something unique in the scene, or the plant, or the animal. It could be the way the light hits the eye of a bird. Birds have big lenses, it’s amazing, and sometimes the light of the sun can go through the lens and strike the bird somewhere on the beak or cheek creating an amazing effect.
You might see a duck, and the ducks feet are big because of their webs. It could be that one foot is on top of the other a bit pigeon toed with a silly looking expression on their face. It might be the whales with the rainbows. So essentially I’m looking for something that is kind of unique, striking, and capturing that “wow” sense I was talking about earlier.
It also makes the viewer work a little bit. I definitely enjoy scenes that tie in naturally. Like if you see a dead tree, and all these branches poking out all over the place, then a trumpet vine growing up covering the trunk of the tree. You don’t even see the trunk of the tree, just all these branches shooting out. In the center of all this is the trumpet vine with bright colors and beautiful flowers. One time I saw that and ‘click, ‘you can see that the trumpet vine is trumpeting!
As I go through my painting life, what I aspire to is capturing very unique and unusual situations that the viewer, with some work on their part, can see. They almost say, “this is a painting by Greer and there’s got to be something about this somewhat unique or a story being told.”
MOT ~ Have you had moments where you found those images that really struck you, but your skill level may not have been ready to recreate that feeling you had? If so, how did you deal with that? Is there some strategy to come back to it later?
DG ~ Yes, and what you do is try to repeat it over and over until you get it. And if you never seem to get it, well you tried at least. I mean look at Monet. Several of his works were repeated scenes over and over again: different light, different color effects and so on. There’s nothing wrong with, as I said a moment ago, most of the paintings I do, and most folks for that matter, aren’t all that great. We tend to know artists by one or two things. A really great artist by more then one or two, but most isn’t really all that notable. So you just keep trying.
Success is measured by how high you bounce after you hit bottom. I can’t remember who said that, but it’s a good saying.
~ TECHNICAL ~
MOT ~ Would you mind trying to give an overall break down of your process from beginning to end?
DG ~ Of course you start with and idea and then start to work on the composition. What’s going to be big or small, the position of the objects on the paper. I’m a believer in focal points. In abstraction there’s really very little depth or maybe even no depth at all. There may be little in the way of a focal point and just a whole lot of stuff going on.
Also, you want to get different values from dark to white and the sketch helps to do some preliminary development. Eventually you get to actually doing the graphite sketch on the paper. In watercolor, things can be so unruly I tend to stick to familiar materials and papers. You get in to a bit of a routine. It’s not always the same. Sometimes you may skip the value sketch and go straight to the painting, while others you may get into the washes and the backgrounds. In general, I think everybody tends to follow certain routines to get the results they want.
MOT ~ What is it that tells you when something’s done? Do you get that “wow” impact from the work that just lets you know?
DG ~ It’s hard to say. Sometimes you wish there was somebody behind you looking over your shoulder and holding a gun and they’d say “okay, it’s done!”and then shoot ya. “Whew, okay, it’s over.”
What I’ve done a lot lately is I’ll do a painting, just leave it on the board and just set it to the side and look at it. And sometimes I’ll put it away and bring it out again. I think it helps to really study a painting. One of the things De Kooning used to do was to sit for hours and look at what he was doing. He had some special chairs for this, and I say chairs because he’d often have his girlfriend of the moment with him too. A lot of the time he’d just be sitting there studying his painting. You might just even look at it and say you want to do something, and then look again in the next day or two and say “well no, I don’t want to do that after all.” And after looking at it for long enough, you arrive at that point and say “it’s done.”
Quite often what will happen is during that time of studying the work, you’ll notice things you do want to do because things are missing. For me, it really helps to take that time to study it intensely and confirm if it captures that feeling getting the message across. Once you get the message across, it’s done. But it is a very tricky business. That’s the hardest thing in a sense, to know when you’re done, because you could go on forever. In fact, it’s interesting that some artists like Arshaw Gorky, he painted in oil. He would paint and paint and paint and it would get three inches, four inches, five inches deep away from the canvas paint on top of paint. He’d work at it and work at it with the painting becoming extremely heavy. Maybe it’d weigh fifty pounds because of the paint. He sort of never knew when to finish except when it got too heavy, I guess, that he couldn’t lift it. Of course you can’t do that with watercolor though.
One technique that creates a nice effect, is when you do multiple applications of the same color on the paper. You put it on and let it dry and build up layers with still the white coming through in terms of the light, but you get a much richer effect by that. A lot of people starting out in watercolors, they don’t really know that. Some parts that you’re working on you do need multiple layers, which for many people can make painting in this medium boring. Multiple may mean for some, 10 or more applications of color to get the effect they want. You can get some amazing improvements by patience, which is another thing about watercolors.
MOT ~ I have a question that I’m experimenting with and it’s in regards to how much creative freedom a person has. Not necessarily in a conscious specific way, but maybe more of an inherent inborn way. Are you free to direct yourself, or possibly driven by external forces?
DG ~ Creative freedom is an idea that I have thought about. Since I have had a career in another field which has paid well and so on, I don’t have to realize any commercial gain whatsoever. For many people, I think they do try to appeal to the public. One of the things, while I was in college and was thinking about becoming an artist professionally, that really bothered me was in order to be an artist as a profession you had to actually sell something. This means that you’d need to paint something that would appeal to the public, follow the fad of the day or you’d have to in some way paint in the shadow of what would appeal to people. So you do things like “oh, if I put some big eyes on this child it’ll help sell it.” Or if I paint a little cottage with warm colors in the window, the little path leading up to it and that perfect sunset in the background it’s going to sell. That didn’t appeal to me. So I said “what I’ll do is just forget it and have a regular life, you know and not become an artist.” And that’s what I did.
Many many years later, after thirty years of not painting at all, although I must say during all that time I would look at paintings and say “gee, I wish I could paint like that.” It was always something in the back of my mind that, maybe, I would get back into painting. Now, that I’ve picked it back up again and been doing it for a number of years, I find I’m really free to do what ever I want. I have no thought of pleasing anybody about the painting. Yeah, it’s great to have artistic freedom. I think it’s really fun and I don’t like the thought of having to paint little kids with big eyes just to sell it.
MOT ~ Most of what we consider those classic painters, those “masters” of the various mediums of sculpture, painting and all that never really sold there work during their lifetime. At least not for the sums that they sold for these days. I mean, isn’t that where the idea of the starving artist has arisen?
DG ~ Well, they had ‘patrons,’ but in a sense, although they didn’t necessarily sell their paintings they did need to please their patron. You’re probably referring to people like Van Gogh and he really didn’t sell much of his work for. . . the great painters of the past often didn’t sell their paintings, but even the ones that did, didn’t have that in mind as much as trying to get the effects they wanted. They, in a sense, painted for themselves. I guess it’s like the expression “to thyne own self be true.” For an artist, I think that’s really important. When you’re not, the result is not something that’s really good, whether people buy it or not. No one ever went broke underestimating the tastes of the ‘American’ public.
MOT ~ If you had the opportunity to sit down with any author, philosopher, creative person for a conversation or an interview like this, do you have any questions you’d look to ask?
DG ~ (long pause. . .) It would kind of be interesting to talk to them, much like you’re talking with me. And yet, on the other hand, I think a lot of the really great ones didn’t think so much about what they were doing, they just did it. It just came natural to them, which is what made them good. It’s like for a person it’s natural eat a meal, but people who were great writers started writing, and they wrote and wrote and wrote some more. Musicians, they’d start playing and just did music and enjoyed it. If it comes natural to you, and you enjoy it, that’s the whole story. I don’t think there’s any real key to it. I don’t think you can tell somebody to do this and this and this and they’d become a really great artist. Or to hear that all they did was this and this and than became a great artist. Like cooking a meal that way. Just following a recipe doesn’t quite work that way, it works more organically. Circumstances, influence, genes, all kinds of things play a part. It’s often something they can’t explain themselves, but it’s fun to talk to artists and see what they might have to say. There’s a lot of truth in what’s been said. Like just do it every day.
Artists who are good develop certain work habits, and you often hear about those. Like I always found interesting Hemingway used to write dialog standing up at a typewriter. Then he’d write descriptive scenes sitting down in long hand. He would physically put himself in a situation where he’s attuned to the nature of what’s going on. Dialog is very broken and interrupted, and he got the feeling of that standing up at the typewriter. Now you could do the same thing, and not come anywhere close to Hemingway. It’s interesting. Every artist develops those little techniques, and they are fun to hear about. But I think 90% of what comes out of an artist is just natural to them, just following their nature.
When I was younger, I used to think there was some kind of formula one could follow to become a great writer, musician or artist. As I’ve grown older I don’t think that’s really true. The geniuses and the really great ones, it just kind of came natural. In most cases though, they did receive encouragement and lucky breaks. They may get a mentor or something. They’ll starve to do it giving no thought to their health and well being. That’s really quite remarkable.
MOT ~ I have this idea that there’s a creative element in everybody, it’s just that they may not have found how to tap into it. They may never. It could be because family background, or just lack of encouragement, or not found that creative release they could actually develop something in.
DG ~ There’s truth to that. Even with cooking or gardening, decorating your house, it’s all ways of creativity. It’s all great, it’s living.
I was reading once how you have kids in situations that you’d think are totally hopeless: poverty, father ran off when they were four, their mothers sick a lot, the kids friends are gang members or hoodlums of some sort. Then the kid turns out fine. Well, how does that work? They’ve found that there are certain consistencies that cause a kid to turn out good as opposed to bad. One of them is that there is something they do where people say “Oh, you really do that well.” Then they continue to do that gaining a little bit of self esteem, not necessarily universal self esteem. They realize that they can do something well helping them getting past and avoid all the pitfalls that are waiting there in life for them to turn out bad. Of course they also say a mentor, an adult who takes an interest in the kid, has major sway.
I think it’s very important, and it’s sad to see music programs, art programs and other kinds of activities like that be trashed in school because it’s thought to be irrelevant or unimportant in comparison to math or history or science. But yea, you can be creative brewing beer. . . or making wine, all sorts of things.
Yeah, I think everybody has it, and it’s good to encourage it. To me it’s really sad to see people spend their life in front of a TV. That is not creative, switching channels, no creativity there. They’re just killing time, “I’ve only got so much time here, what am I gonna do to get through this? I guess I’ll just have to watch television.” That’s really stupid, we’re not here to ‘kill time.’ But a lot of people behave as if that’s the case.