Road to Character

Phew – life moved really fast these first two months of the year! In my last post, I showed a few works done using Acrylic on paper. To be honest, I have always been a bit of a snob in my attitude towards the use of Acrylic paint as compared to Oil paint.

It guess it is a combination of the “plastic” nature of acrylic, combined with the quick-drying nature of it. And then there is that luminous, mystical transparency of oil paints. However, I have had some success with Acrylic done on paper (normally heavy Fabriano Hot Press Watercolor paper), and here I would like to share some of these with you.

These next two paintings were inspired by a view of farmland just west of Hamilton, New Zealand. I was driving on the freeway and as I glanced to the side I saw this open farmland, divided into blocks, with the sun and shadow playing on it.

Acrylic on Paper, 66 x 44 cm
Acrylic on Paper, 50 x 32 cm

The painting below is an invented landscape. It started off as an abstract but – as so often happens – it slowly evolved into yet another landscape!

Acrylic on Paper, 66 x 44 cm

The weeks since the start of the year have been quite a ride. Last December, a close family member passed away after a long, brave battle with cancer.  The few and short interactions I had with her and her two young, brave children in the last few days of her life had a profound impact on me.

I decided to deeply review and look into my own life, including my health, fitness and my personal direction in life. As I hinted in my last post, this drive has had an interesting cooling effect on my enthusiasm for painting, which has since evened out again.

I am now about two months into a surprising change in my life path. What started initially as an attempt to get rid of near-chronic fatigue has morphed into a passionate drive to improve my health, fitness and baseline level of happiness – in short, my total way of being.

I started with a zeal for weight-loss and fitness, but one of the first five lessons I learned centred around the brevity of inspiration. It runs out way before you reach the goal. So I soon realized any long term transformation – if it is to be lasting and significant – will be have to be based on humility and patience. In fact – character transformation, rather than body transformation.

In the book The Road to Character, David Brooks writes:

The humble person understands that experience is a better teacher than pure reason. He understands that wisdom is not knowledge. Wisdom emerges out of a collection of intellectual virtues. It is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking.

I have managed to sustain this transformation drive now for almost two months, and I have learned many lessons on this first part of my journey – some expected and some surprising.

Although my blog started as a painting-related thing, I would love to share some of the insights and lessons learned on this journey with the followers of my blog in the hope that it may inspire you and allow you to learn from my experience. So watch this space!

In one sentence I will give you the key to absolute spiritual freedom: to be a self-actualized being, all you have to do is know, feel, think, and act like one.

Roy Eugene Davis – The Book of Life

If you are primarily coming to my blog for the sake of the paintings – I will continue to post some of my recent works, but be prepared for some motivational reading also!

Before I go – an excerpt from a poem by Wang Wei:

Oftentimes - with joy in my heart -
Alone, I roam here and there.
It is a wonderful thing
That I am aware of myself.
When the streamlet ends my trip
I settle down and catch
The moment of rising mists.
Now and then I meet
A furrowed dweller of the woods.
We chat and laugh;
Never do we want to go home.

Wang Wei, quoted in
Creativity and Taoism, by Chung-yuan Chang

It is a wonderful thing that I am aware of myself!

Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you are happy and content.




Among Shadows and Ruins

In my last post I showed some of my recent paintings done on paper. These were in watercolor and pastel. At the moment, I really enjoy working on paper – just something about that natural texture and light weight of paper. However, I have become a bit impatient to let the watercolor dry before I go over it in pastel.

So…I dusted off my old bottles of Acrylic paints and started playing around with it. Not expecting anything to come out of these play sessions, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed the combination of Acrylic and paper.

The images in this post are some abstract works (size about 50 x 33 cm) that have come out of these play sessions – some of these have been getting quite a lot of pins when I posted them on Pinterest, so I guess I am not the only one liking them!


I have also posted some of these on my formal website, and in doing this I found that putting a border around the image gives a much better indication of what the work would look like when it is framed with a mat behind glass. In the case of abstract work, I have always found that the border makes up an intrinsic part of the composition, so it is quite important to see it with a proper border.



A good break over the new year, together with increasing exposure to sunlight, nourishing but sparse food and lots of exercise has enabled me to put some distance between my demons and my angels. At the moment I am living with my angels mostly, but in the end I realize – they are all mine. All part of this particular life as a sentient being on a ball twirling in a corner of the vast eternal universe.

When consciousness can relax into the simplicity of bare presence, something opens up. We are in harmony with a greater intelligence, or more accurately, the illusion that we are separate from this falls away.

Tollifson, Joan. Nothing to Grasp (pp. 103-104). New Harbinger Publications. 

With a more energized viewpoint, I noted that my need to go into the studio has ever so slightly diminished – like everything else this will change – but for now I am keeping a curious eye on it. I have learned not to overthink these changes in my internal seasons too much. Besides, thinking is quite overrated. To quote Tollifson again:

Some of our thinking is useful and functional, but we can notice that much of our thinking, maybe most of it, does nothing but generate suffering and confusion. With awareness, we can begin to feel when thought ceases to be useful, when it slides over into obsessive rumination. The more we pay attention with awareness to any thought process, the more we can become sensitive to where it ceases to be functional. Ultimately, the clearest and most truly creative decisions, discoveries and breakthroughs come from a place totally beyond the thinking mind.

What I have learned to my surprise (again!) over the past few weeks is that a healthy, nourished body exposed to a lot of sunlight really does tend to host a more positive, healthy mind. The old “healthy body, healthy mind” cliche, a bit more personally experienced.

But there is something of benefit in all internal seasons. What beauty is there not also in the spirit in repose, slightly reflective and objective. I can only imagine the mood of Pessoa when he wrote:

The more I contemplate the spectacle of the world and the ever-changing state of things, the more profoundly I’m convinced of the inherent fiction of everything, of the false importance exhibited by all realities. And in this contemplation (which has occurred to all thinking souls at one time or another), the colourful parade of customs and fashions, the complex path of civilizations and progress, the grandiose commotion of empires and cultures – all of this strikes me as a myth and a fiction, dreamed among shadows and ruins. But I’m not sure whether the supreme resolution of all these dead intentions – dead even when achieved – lies in the ecstatic resignation of the Buddha, who, once he understood the emptiness of things, stood up from his ecstasy saying, ‘Now I know everything’, or in the jaded indifference of the emperor Severus: ‘Omnia fui, nihil expedit – I have been everything, nothing is worth anything.’

Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet (Penguin Modern Classics)


Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you are happy and content.

O248: More True Than Grey

This is a painting that came almost as an afterthought at the end of a session when I worked on something larger. It is oil and cold wax painted over an earlier effort, which explains the texture and unevenness of the surface which provides a charm of its own, unless you are more into glossy-smooth precision.

O248: Oil and Cold Wax on Panel (approx 35 x 30 cm)


Pessoa makes no sense most of the time. Certainly he is not a leader of the positive thinking movement. But the music in his prose  has an attraction I cannot stay away from from, especially when the rain falls without end:

Behind me, on the other side of where I’m lying down, the silence of the apartment touches infinity. I hear time fall, drop by drop, and not one drop that falls can be heard. My physical heart is physically oppressed by the memory – reduced to nothing – of all that has been or that I’ve been. I feel my head materially supported by the pillow in which it makes a valley. My skin and the skin of the pillowcase are like two people touching in the shadows. Even the ear on which I’m lying mathematically engraves itself on my brain. I blink with fatigue, and my eyelashes make an infinitesimal, inaudible sound against the felt whiteness of the pillow’s slope. I breathe, sighing, and my breathing happens – it isn’t mine. I suffer without feeling or thinking. The household clock, definitely located in the midst of the infinite, strikes the half hour, dry and void. Everything is so vast, so deep, so black and so cold! I pass times, I pass silences; formless worlds pass by me.

Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet (Penguin Modern Classics)

Among the books and letters of my late father, I found a book of Afrikaans poetry with English Translations. It is a book I knew from childhood – I remember taking it down for the odd browse-through as a teenager. Now it has a different meaning. Here is a poem by Elizabeth Eybers, one of the most celebrated Afrikaans poets:

Die wit leuen van die liefde wou
ek naas die naakte waarheid hou,
berekenbaar en overbloem
deur listige herinnering:
daar is so veel om te besing,
so min om op te noem.

En hoe noukeuriger ek staar
hoe minder word ek weer gewaar
as dat geen mens wat gloed beskou
om dit met as te vergelyk
ooit wysheid leer: want altyd blyk
wit werkliker as grou.

and here is the English translation from the book, by the poet herself:

I measure the white lie of love
by holding it alongside of
computable bald truth without
adding sly memory's estimate:
there is so much to sing about,
so little to relate.

However zealously I pore
the less can I distinguish more
than that by studying glow to see
how it compares with ash one may
become no wiser: constantly
white gleams more true than grey


Thanks for visiting my blog! I hope you are happy and content.

O245-7: The Skylark Departs

This is a landscape that came a long way to be here. I must have reworked both sky and background about four times each. This is oil on panel, size approximately 60 cm x 45 cm.


Rollo May wrote:

A psychological problem, I have pointed out elsewhere, is like fever; it indicates that something is wrong within the structure of the person and that a struggle is going on for survival. This, in turn, is a proof to us that some other way of behaving is possible. Our old way of thinking—that problems are to be gotten rid of as soon as possible—overlooks the most important thing of all: that problems are a normal aspect of living and are basic to human creativity. This is true whether one is constructing things or reconstructing oneself. Problems are the outward signs of unused inner possibilities.

May, Rollo. Freedom and Destiny (Norton Paperback)

On days when my time and/or energy is low, I turn to charcoal and pastel for relief:

P25 (Pastel and Charcoal on paper, size approximately A4)

This often leads to an effort in oil:

O246: (oil on panel, approx 8 x 10 inches)
O247:: (oil on panel, approx 8 x 10 inches)

There are days when the demands of life, promises made, leaves me depleted and anxious. My approach is to see this anxiety as part of organic life, not as an enemy, but as a source of potential, as Rollo May points out:

The definition of mental health needs to be changed to living without paralyzing anxiety, but living with normal anxiety as a stimulant to a vital existence, as a source of energy, and as life-enhancing.

Here in New Zealand the spring winds and rain are relentless. I lie awake at night, listening to the wind shake anything that can move. I think of small winged creatures huddling outside. And I think of this poem:

Approaching midnight
on a hillside, in springtime,
in a temple hall,
even in my deepest dreams,
the blossoms continue to fall.

Ki No Tsurayuki, translated by Sam Hamill, in
The Poetry of Zen, by Hamill and Seaton


Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you are happy and content.

O242-4: Beyond the Last Thought

For a while now I have tried to move away from painting only invented landscapes to once-again painting from observation (either direct or in photos). I am finding it difficult – somehow it feels like being constrained by the source image. But I found a change in tack is very useful in getting a deeper grip on the flow and direction of the landscape.

O242: Oil on Panel (approx 60 x 50 cm)

This painting is about 60 x 50 cm and is based on the photo shown below – taken during my morning walk. As you can see the photo has a very different mood. But what attracted me was the repetitive shapes and the line running through the landscape.


Below are two more paintings I did in the same week as the one above. Initially I was somewhat encouraged by how well I handled the masses of green in the painting above, so I repeated it with an invented landscape based on a thumbnail sketch:

O243: Oil on Panel (approx 45 x 28 cm)

But as the week wore on and the stress of work took its toll, my painting world turned more gray:

O244: Oil on Panel (approx 50 x 38 cm)

In his discussion of Existentialism, Rollo May wrote:

…no matter how interesting or theoretically true is the fact that I am composed of such and such chemicals or act by such and such mechanisms or patterns, the crucial question always is that I happen to exist at this given moment in time and space, and my problem is how I am to be aware of that fact and what I shall do about it.

May, Rollo. The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology W. W. Norton & Company. 

May continues to note that the threats to our life and security, though feared and avoided, are the very things that make us more alive:

Without this awareness of nonbeing— that is, awareness of the threats to one’s being in death, anxiety, and the less dramatic but persistent threats of loss of potentialities in conformism— existence is vapid, unreal, and characterized by lack of concrete self-awareness. But with the confronting of nonbeing, existence takes on vitality and immediacy, and the individual experiences a heightened consciousness of himself, his world, and others around him.

Away from my home in New Zealand for more than a week now, I long for my loved ones and the longing makes them dearer. Meditation provides a valuable anchor at night when the jet-lag shuffles my sleep.

In deep meditation at times one feels as if an abyss is being approached – the “palm at the end of mind” of which Wallace Stevens wrote:

Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Wallace Stevens
(this copy from Poetry Foundation)


I hope you are happy and content. Thanks for visiting my blog!

O231: Transience of Things

This painting is another attempt to render a scene I see often on my daily walk up Driver Road. The source photo together with an earlier attempt is shown below.

In this scene I am approaching a steep hill with a grove of pine trees. The sun is rising behind and to the east of the the clouds, giving it a side and back lighting that creates an aura of light and shadow over cloud and landscape.


Below is my first attempt at rendering this scene which I also posted earlier. Looking at it in this small format, I almost like the first one better, but the comparison is unfair. The first one (directly below), is much smaller and the paint applied much thinner.


In my most recent attempt, the thicker, broken application of paint creates a shimmering density of color that simply cannot be captured by camera, and the larger scale mimics something new in the landscape:

#O231: Oil on Panel (Size approximately 60 cm x 45 cm)


Much has happened in my life over the past two weeks. I cannot stop painting and my mind is wandering on far roads I have never seen; I am falling behind so fast in logging paintings. So I will have to just log some without a post to go along with each:

The painting below was painted over my earlier work posted here. I think I have since painted over it again – this may have been a mistake.

#O232: Oil on Panel (Size approximately 60 cm x 45 cm)

The painting below was at the time the largest one I ever did. Sad to say this was only about 60 cm x 60 cm. It appears to be a favorite of my friends and family. I have since put a nice frame around it (below)

#O231 Oil on Panel (approx 60 cm x 60 cm)

Here is #O231 in a floating frame I made – it is a horrible photo, color all wrong, but you get the idea:


And here are two smaller sketches:

#O235 Oil on Panel (approx 8 x 10 inches)
#O236 Oil on Panel (approx 8 x 10 inches)


In the photo above, I show the thumbnail concept sketch on which painting #O236 is based.

Almost finally, here are two larger paintings, both are favorites of mine for their density and depth of color, but I get the idea most others are not too fond of it, which is sadly fine by me.

O237: Burn-stack in Winter, New Zealand
#O238: Looking South-West, Making Good Time

So now I am almost caught up. I have about another 12 paintings to log to catch up but I am not sure when that is going to happen. Meantime I keep painting.

Last week someone close to me passed away. It was all in accord with the blueprint, but in many small ways, life will never be the same for me. Sadness blows in drifts through my day. Tasks are left undone.

In my frosty morning walks I notice the ducks – not feeling the cold because they are so thoroughly cold themselves. I recall again the poem by the 12th century poet Fujiwara No Teika:

You who fail to think
on the transience of things,
listen: do you hear,
in that far mountain village,
a duck cries on the frozen pond?

from The Poetry of Zen by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton


I hope you are well and content. Thanks for visiting my blog.

O228-30: Emerald World

This is yet another attempt to come to grip with two things that lie at the end of my comfort zone in painting: (a) interpreting an intensely green landscape; and (b) innovating the horizon line.

In New Zealand, cool greens, whites and blues dominate much of the North Island landscape. Though most of my landscapes are invented, I find that I constantly draw imagery from my 3 km morning walk through the New Zealand countryside. Bringing that back into the studio is becoming my painting practice.

Handling large masses of green whilst still keeping depth, interest and variation is a challenge, and I keep on going at from different angles. I am quite happy with this effort:

#O228: Emerald World; Oil on Panel (approx 45 x 30 cm)


I found a gem of a poem in Marie Marshall’s “Naked in the Sea”, dealing somehow with the same “problem of green”. Here are the first and last verses:

E is for the Emerald World: 
summer in all its sickening fullness 
the lush and green depth of trees 
alive with the rustling of bird-wings 
this time when the stink of wild garlic 
and of the crushed stems of fennel 
make the corners of my mouth ache 
give me the naked honesty of the desert 
of the undrinkable ocean’s sky-to-sky 
or of the dust-devils of the townscape 
because the emerald world of summer 
is a green gem of ever-hard promises
mocking the starvation-stone in my belly

Marshall, Marie. Naked in the Sea 
P'kaboo Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Below are two other paintings where I was pushing the edge of my comfort zone a bit. In the first, I was trying to keep a very light key. After this photo was taken, I unfortunately started fiddling with this painting whilst in a bad mood and managed to wreck it completely. It is now slated for recycling.

#O229: Oil on Panel (approx 60 x 40 cm)

In the painting below, I was trying to work mostly in blue and grey. I have had a few good responses to this painting, but somehow I am not too fond of it myself. It was good practice though!

#O230: Oil on Canvas (approx 45 x 30 cm)

I keep going through cycles of doubt and confidence – proving that I am alive and fairly normal. The Doubt, I believe, is one of the most feared and useful facets in an artist’s arsenal. But seeing it that way can be a challenge.

In Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, he advises as follows:

And your doubt may become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps, or perhaps rebellious. But don’t give in, insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time, and the day will arrive when from a destroyer it will become one of your best workers—perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at your life.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. W. W. Norton & Company.


Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you are happy and content.


O226: Backscatter Memories

I am falling behind! I have made so many paintings since I painted this, I cannot really remember the person who made this painting, about 15 days ago. But the painting started like this:


and then went on to this:


This is an invented landscape. So who knows what dreams behind that hill, whereto that road over a half-ploughed field from another season, somewhere in Cullinan?

Yesterday I purchased a new book of poetry – this one called Naked in the Sea, by Marie Marshall, an award winning poet who posts some of her poems right here on WordPress. Some of these poems carry turns of phrase such as “..we will be whispered down” – phrases that take me right into silence and the wonder of not-knowing.

She starts off her poem “Leaf 22″ like this:

Time is now a commodity for wasting, 
so say the long minutes of daylight, 
and the backscatter memories, brave 
in the sky, of no more than half-dark. 

And yet each day there is a minute or two 
eaten away, a pixel here and there 
taken from a whole, day-long picture, 
and the wise, sad, glass-half-empty person 
knows she will wake up one day and there 
will be the end of the precious season.

Marshall, Marie. Naked in the Sea. P'kaboo Publishers. Kindle Edition.

As with many of Marshall’s poems, this one ends with a leap that turns my senses onto themselves:

Why do I spend my time dancing here, 
do you know?


Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you are happy and content.


O224: And I Let the Fish Go

This is a landscape I see often on my morning walk. I have painted it before and posted the result in this post. The earlier painting is shown below and is one of those I have kept around my studio longest.



In my latest attempt I have aimed for something more abstract and wild, centered around patterns and textures. I am not sure I have succeeded in my goal yet, so I see this as a work in progress. The different stages up to now are shown below:


Robert Henri wrote:

He who has contemplated has met with himself, is in a state to see into the realities beyond the surfaces of his subject. Nature reveals to him, and, seeing and feeling intensely, he paints, and whether he wills it or not each brush stroke is an exact record of such as he was at the exact moment the stroke was made.

Henri, Robert. The Art Spirit

I will end this post from something I wrote and a poem I quoted with the above painting on my first attempt, back in October 2016:

In her beautiful poem “The Fish”, Elizabeth Bishop writes of a fishing experience. The narrator is in a rented boat, and catches a massive fish. She hauls the fish aboard, minutely describes the fish, its scales, gills and eyes. Then she notices, from its gaping jaw, five pieces of fish-line where the old fish had fought and beaten five other fishermen. She continues:

Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels- until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you are happy and content.


O223: A Minor Tonality

This is one of the larger invented landscapes I have done, about 60 x 45 cm in size. I am trying to incorporate a lighter color key into my paintings and I regard this painting and the others I did this weekend (to be posted soon) as experiments. But then, maybe everything we do in art is experimental?

Below you can see how this painting evolved from a playful sketch in which the composition centered around spirals. The painting on the right is the result after my second painting session. I left it overnight and decided I wanted to darken the foreground.

The final outcome is below. I am quite happy with this result.

I have in the past received comments on my blog – and in in person – remarking on my rather somber palette. Also, often my posts – as the name of my blog suggests – focuses on the..ahem…less happy facets of life – which also seems to elicit concern about my well-being and state of mind!


Like many others, I am rather formal and serious in public. But privately I still feel like a child, joyful and happy for much of the time. However, if I am still a child at heart in my private moments, then it is a child who has seen loved ones disappear and knows that we are on this earth only for a limited time, and that this material realm is not our true home.

So…yes, there is a somber, melancholy element to my art, and this is a direct reflection of the beauty I see in the deeper, more reflective, and subtle aspects of life. A frivolous happiness – in art often represented by what Andrew Wyeth called “the visual cocktail” – is not sustainable all the time (unless you are getting some chemical assistance!).

And so to represent all of life in art, there has to be the shadow side as well. I feel quite comfortable in that shadow side. The “always positive and happy” movement is good – I have benefited from it myself. This is what I believe Thomas Moore referred to as a “Major Tonality” of life.

But the patina of life is more interesting than just that one tonality. Moore writes:

When people approve only of major tonalities, they become simplistic, not only in their thinking but in their very being…It takes a complex view of yourself and your fellow human beings to hold back on hatreds and fears. A mature person is complicated and has complex ideas and values. The minor tonality of a dark night adds a significant and valuable complexity to your personality and way of life.

Thomas Moore: Dark Nights of the Soul

Wendell Berry seems to know the darkness of life also blooms and sings:

To Know the Dark
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.

The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry


Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you are…HAPPY…and content!