A Little Sandstone

Despite the wonderful days I’ve spent traveling and hiking in the American Southwest, I’ve not painted a lot of sandstone so far. My palette has tended toward the blue/purple/brown/green end of the spectrum, and I’m not as familiar yet with the pinks, reds and oranges inherent in sandstone.

I do like the  streaks and random stains that appear when sandstone gets exposed and weathered. To play with this a bit, I decided to use a small (27×22 cm) canvas which had already been subject to at least two painting experiments over which I had unceremoniously slopped gesso. That gave me a relatively rough surface that I thought could be useful when painting rocks.

On my first attempt, I used the wrong tint of pinkish-kinda-orangey, so I wiped it off. I switched brushes and decided to try the sky. Not bad, but not particularly inspiring. I tried the cliffs again. Ugh! Not good at all. I attempted to fix it by quickly swiping here and there with more paint, as if to accomplish Art by derring-do. It looked like someone had applied WAY too much makeup. Nah. I wiped it off, soaked a rag and wiped it again. And again. I left most of the sky. Below the horizon line, it was just the stuff I couldn’t get off. I should have taken a picture: all that aerial drama over a dull salmon fog.

The next day, I went at it again. I’ve been following Joshua Been‘s work, and he keeps talking about painting “deliberately.” I’m more of a frenetic scrubber and scraper, or a delicate dabber, but I see his point. Laying down specific, intentional brushstrokes can give the work a freshness that belies its deliberateness. I tried it. Not bad. Here’s where that ended up:


This is Stage 2, really. Stage 1 got wiped off, mostly!

The day after that, I went at it again, hoping to get some more personality out of it. Sure enough, I found myself doing all those little cracks and crevices again. They’re irresistible. The cool thing was that the more I worked on it, the more fun I had. All that sandstone character started to emerge. Maybe someday, I’ll get more efficient and just leave the strokes as they lie. For now, I’m having a good time playing with a tiny brush to bring out all those nooks and crannies.


“Between a Rock and a Stormy Place” Canyon de Chelly, Arizona Acrylic on canvas – 27x22cm

Progress and Acceptance


“Khan Tengri” and “The Way Here” –  Details

About twenty years ago, a good friend of mine listened patiently to a whole cassette tape of my original music. After a minute of baffled silence, she looked up at me and said, “but I still don’t know what Mark Cole sounds like.”

I’ve been wondering what defines “my style” ever since. For awhile, it was a conundrum.

I can’t remember which artist once quipped, “As a painter, I allow myself three styles, just not all in the same painting.”

Once I started thinking this way, I didn’t worry as much about having a definable style. I’ve focused more on what interests me and what I want to communicate. Over time, certain ways of doing things start becoming recognizable as “mine.”

Still, as artists, writers and musicians–as human beings–we’re always changing. “The way we did it last time” is always being challenged, stretched, toyed with and tweaked. We do it to grow, to create something new.

After I’ve worked in a medium for awhile, I start seeing (or hearing) things in ways that I can achieve with the methods currently at my disposal. On the one hand, I’ve become competent. On the other hand, I’m still working on improving–whatever that may mean this year/week/minute.

I’m beginning to accept that as much as I want to “loosen up,” I really enjoy painting all those delightful details. As much as I want to raise the key and create atmosphere, I love intense color and rich darks. As much as I want to lay down deliberate strokes, I’m still happily wearing out my brushes by vigorously scrubbing all over the canvas.

Progress comes incrementally, or in leaps. Some days, I achieve the atmosphere I was hoping for, or I’ll suggest detail rather than depict it, or I’ll lay down a few key brushstrokes just the way I wanted to. On other days, none of that happens. I just keep working, keep trying.

In the meantime, I’ve learned to accept it when I find that little brush in my hand again, painting some tantalizing crack in a cliff wall or defining a crevasse. I’ll get loose again tomorrow. As long as I’m happy doing the work, it’s all good.