Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Carolyn Anderson Workshop... "Smoke and Mirrors, Baby"

Demo Painting by Carolyn Anderson

Workshops are like continuing education classes for artists. They’re completely voluntary, so the artist may choose exactly the kind he or she wants. Sometimes artists select a workshop to acquire a particular skill, but usually it’s less about skill sets and more about the instructor. Painters go to the workshops of artists they admire.

I just attended a Carolyn Anderson workshop in Scottsdale Arizona. Carolyn did all the great things expected in a workshop. She painted demos, gave individual attention, and dispensed practical advice. She also talked about art and painting in a thoughtful, and I think, profound way. It was rather like going back to college, not to the classroom, but back to one of those all-night sessions where the big questions are explored: Life, Death, God and our place in the universe. I’m afraid I’ve made it sound stuffy and pretentious. It was neither. It was thought-provoking and illuminating.

As I recall, the discussion began with the very basic but often overlooked fact that painting is illusion; in Carolyn’s phraseology, it's all “smoke and mirrors, baby.” Representational painters, and a huge chunk of abstractionists, make the two-dimensional seem like three. We are conjurers who call forth depth where none can exist. We also, and this can include abstract expressionists, make paint seem to be all sorts of other things: water, metal, flesh, to name a few.

Sometimes, we pretend that what we paint is really, really real. Trompe d’oeil and photorealism are examples. When this works as it should, while trying to amaze (ex: “gosh, those grapes look real enough to eat”), the artist is saying much more about the nature of reality and our perception of it.

More often, we admit to the illusion. We let the viewer in on the trick from the beginning. Art critics like to talk as though this letting the viewer in on the trick is a recent thing. But it isn’t. Rembrandt, for one, did it repeatedly several centuries ago. One of my favorite Rembrandt paintings is a figurative of his lover wading in a shallow stream. Her painted tunic looks more real than my laundry, the painted water more real than that  flowing from my tap. At the same time, both look exactly like what they are… paint. Rembrandt did the parlor trick with his knowledge of form, edges and values. He let everyone in on his illusion by applying the paint so thickly (impasto) that its true nature can not be denied.

Recognize the illusion, acknowledge the smoke and mirrors and the artist is ready to say something more, quite often something that can’t be put into words at all.

For some beautiful words, be sure to read what Carolyn wrote and quoted about edges on the home page of her website.


  1. I really like how you handled the application of the paint on this portrait.

  2. Tout n'est qu'illusion... mais tellement vrai...
    Je suis heureuse que vous ayez passée ma chère un moment avec Caroline...
    gros bisous et merci de nous montrer cette peinture de démonstration.

  3. I just found your blog. You are very talented artist and beautiful storyteller. I'm definitely coming back for more.

  4. Thank you for sharing that! Inspiring to say the least!

  5. Douglas, I sooo wish I could take credit for this, but this is one of the demos Carolyn Anderson did at the workshop. Beautiful, isn't it.

  6. Martine, you are very welcome. Carolyn did several outstanding demos for us. It was wonderful to see how she worked.
    Violetta, the painting and thoughts of this post are Carolyn's. I'm just the messenger.
    Susan, it was inspiring. I'm, of course, still trying to absorb it all.

  7. How lucky you were to attend Carolyn's workshop, I can't wait to see what you paint next!

  8. Sherrie, I was very fortunate. It will take awhile to absorb the lessons. I just hope a little of it really sticks!

  9. Ohhh I'm a little bit jealous...I have heard that her workshops are great. I love the way you summerized some really important thoughts regarding her phrase, "it's all smoke and mirrors," which is something I've been contemplating lately. Thank you for your thoughtful writing. Can't wait to see how you put it all into your work.

  10. I always love your posts - they are so informative - especially with the links. And your art is beautiful with great color!

  11. Christine, her workshops are great. It was worth the trip, the cost and the time.
    Thalia, thank you very much. Finding the links I want sometimes takes me quite a bit of time.

  12. Shirley, you write so well what Carolyn taught you in her workshop. I'm sure the lessons you learned will continue to materialize...they have for me.


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Pieces by (clockwise from left to right) : Susan Harlan, Janet Garner, Shirley Fachilla, Mike Martino and Topper Williams. So many ...