Love Can't Hide by Lil McGill










I have been going through a phase of exploring emotional awareness, and just how powerfully we are ruled by our feeling life whether we are aware of it or not.  These emotional patterns are laid down in the earliest beginnings of childhood (and likely before) and thus are pre-verbal and often very difficult to name and describe.  However, it is becoming more and more clear to me that when we are able to acknowledge our feeling state in a pretty specific way, we are able to navigate life’s challenges with  a lot more grace, fluidity and, shall I say it, power.

Enter painting.  The kind of painting we do here in our Abstract Laboratory workshop is dominated by our feeling life.  I had to chuckle when I heard that an art show juror told an abstract artist that “abstract artists are so busy expressing their feelings all the time.”  I would have to say that all art is expressing emotion of some kind, that we want art to elicit an emotional response, rather than mental, whether it is highly detailed and realistic in style, or monotone pure abstract.  It is almost as if many people fear the abstract expression, because it is so naked in its transmission of emotional energy.  This I can understand, and yet obviously, I am drawn deep into the abstract world because it is where I find the most beauty, freedom and truth.

In her brilliant book,”The Language of Emotions,” (previously published in the form of the book, “Emotional Genius”), Karla McLaren writes about  the utter importance of acknowledging and honoring all of our emotions, particularly those thought to be difficult.  I have been under the impression all of my life that there are positive emotions and negative emotions, and that half of all emotions are “positive” cheerful, joyous, happy, etc. and the other half are on the darker side, anger, fear, grief, shame, sadness, depression, envy, etc.  Of course there are many ways of looking at all of this, but what I got from McLaren’s work is that the “Happy” emotions are about 1/7 of the spectrum of basic emotional expression.   A friend told me that that is one of the bases of Buddhism. Happiness is just another emotion, and that our American way of chasing after happiness at the expense of listening to what our other emotions are telling us is really getting us into a lot of trouble. So in this light I thought it would be interesting to do a series of paintings depicting a full range of emotions, honoring each one for its beauty and important message held within its particular structure.  I thought I would call the series “52 feelings” and have a new painting for each week of the year, looking at a different emotional flavor in its own separate painting.

Enter color.  My intellect would just love to assign a different color to each emotional state.  That would really tie things up nicely into a bright colored, full spectrum package.  I was able to do this for another series I am beginning to paint, based on astrology.  I have been able to assign my own system of colors to the planets and zodiac signs based on the elements, so that I can explore painting astrological charts in an abstract form. But the emotional spectrum is more difficult to color in. I’ve seen emotional color wheels, I’ve studied the chakra system, I’ve noted that over the internet you can find color associations for different feelings and they are all different.  Which causes me great dismay.  No one agrees!  No one agrees?  When I was young, in my mind’s eye, each day of the week was a different color.  Monday was yellow, and Tuesday was turquoise, and Wednesday was green, and Thursday was brown and orange and Friday was purple, Saturday was multi-colored and Sunday was white.  Everyone I asked had different colors for their days of the week. I really thought all Wednesdays were green. McLaren says that it is really too difficult to assign color associations to feelings.  Because color responses are so subjective.  Everyone has a different color association for different feelings coming from their own intricate experience.  I thought that maybe there was some reliable, archetypal color system – a universal human understanding, but I have yet to find it.

Enter videotape.  Okay, well not videotape exactly, because all the video is digital these days, or so I’m discovering.  Last October our Abstract Laboratory painting class was filmed for the local tv station.  The subject was color, and we all ended up talking a great deal about emotion and our feelings associated with different colors and of course, different colors meant different things to each artist.  In the video I give the example of magenta (one of my favorites).  Magenta, is in the red family, and traditionally could be associated with the first chakra, which is survival, primal fear, instinct, groundedness, danger, passion.  But to me magenta is also joy and expansion, it has an endless uplifting energy.  The color magenta was actually named after the Battle of Magenta, in France, when a brand new color of dye looked like the color of blood from the battlefield and thus was all the rage in Paris.   That has a whole other connotation and I would bet that every color has its own complex and contradictory history of meaning and connections, both dark and light.  I have recently thought that the reason I love magenta so much, and “can’t live without it” as I often say, is that my mother had a cardigan sweater that color when I was four.  Now that’s a personal association of the most powerful nature.

So here’s the question.  Can you paint sadness?  We will be experimenting with this in one way or another in the coming year.  Can you paint love?  Can you infuse your painting work intentionally with a feeling state that could be of benefit to others?  Can your thought-forms infiltrate the water in your painting and manifest in form and color to create a space of healing?

I’m not sure how these experiments will manifest.  There may or may not be a series of paintings coming out of it.  I have a feeling it will have something to do with videotape.  I mean digital video. I feel my creative life restructuring itself, changing media, becoming much more collaborative.  Have you noticed how dramatically and quickly our lives are changing?  It’s all so mysterious, and we have so much to learn, and thus, the work of the abstract painting laboratory goes on.

My Big Fat Painting Day

October 10, 2009

Weaving the Universe by Lil McGill

Weaving the Universe by Lil McGill

Last Saturday I had a really long and full painting day.  I wasn’t expecting much of anything from it.  And afterwards part of me wasn’t all that impressed with the results of all that effort.  And sometimes I wonder why I spend my time this way.  And what else I could be doing instead, etc.  These are the usual tendencies I have come to recognize as artistic resistance.  There are an infinite number of reasons why not to follow a discipline of artistic work.  And just a very few reasons to come back to it, over and again.  But these reasons that I have slowly been discovering and collecting along the way are what I am finding to be most extraordinary.

Gift from the Sea by Lil McGill

Gift from the Sea by Lil McGill

Out of the ordinary I should say.  Not normal.  Paranormal?  Supernatural.

First of all, it has become quite clear to me that when I am painting, I am not painting.  It is not ME who creates a work of art.  Yes, I get myself there, to the painting chamber.  I order the paint and stretch the canvas.  .  I mix up the paint.  I put on an apron.  I turn on the music and try not to answer the phone.  Then I try just to get the heck out of the way.

It was with great relief last Saturday to recognize and remember this phenomenon as I was faced with a full long day of work.  Eighteen blank canvases stretched out before me, spread out on tables and on the tarped, concrete floor.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.  I was way behind in the inspiration department.  I was barely able to make time for this one day, how was I going to get anything good done?  And then I remembered, and relaxed, and let the Artist do it instead.  Thank goodness I didn’t have to come up with all that inspired work (or any work at all).  I just had to let the colors start flowing, let the energy through my hands, my whole body moving and mixing and pouring. I am as if an instrument.  Perhaps imperfect, with limited skills and experience relatively speaking, but a willing instrument nonetheless.  As if a spirit out there has recognized that I show up in this particular painting studio on a regular basis and whatever set of skills I have that artistic spirit will work with it.  What I have will do for now as it is what’s available.

Passion Hado by Lil McGill

Passion Hado by Lil McGill

I feel mostly like the assistant in there.  I get to finish off some of the edges, and clean up the spills and fill up the water jars.  I get to watch the glory of the colors flowing together and finding their forms and formlessness.  I must squelch my judgment about the final product as best I can.  What I don’t see right away often appears to me later.  Others may or may not see what I see in the work, but I protect the image that comes through as best I can, with respect for the artistic spirit  that created it.  Allow it to be the way it is.  When I am titling the works I look and look at them until I see.  I have written before about seeing animals in these images, most often birds.  On Saturday I saw a cat, two bats, a lynx, an eagle, several condors and horses, and the ever present llama.  I saw a giraffe, three goddesses and two mythical creatures.  Several pure abstract impressions of the vibrations of words such as passion, affection and thankfulness.  I saw the woman who weaves the universe eternally, I saw a conch and a Hawaiian island.  A shark and two female spirit guides, and one primordial flying creature from another galaxy.

Far Off Destinations by Lil McGill

Far Off Destinations by Lil McGill

No mind altering substances involved here, I swear.  This is just what happens when I keep returning to the same space over and over with the intention of completing a set of paintings.  The more I see the more I see. I become more and more sensitive to the subtle energies of the spirit world, the vastness of time and space, expanding consciousness, the form of a thought, the temperature of a color.  I become more and more attuned to how everything is alive and has its own vibration, its own magic and message.  And the exploration of this great mystery goes on and on….

Happy Through Music by Lil McGill

Happy Through Music by Lil McGill

The last time I painted was the end of June before I went away for a month to visit the ocean.  I had canvases stretched and waiting; I had a plan.  An old friend, Danny, reminded me of a piece of music, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,”  that was loved by our dear professor and friend of ours, Jerry Badanes, who is no longer with us in this world.  He had said that when he listened to it it was like God talking.

I have had many powerful experiences painting to music.   When I paint to a piece of music I tend to listen to it over and over until I am immersed.  Once I painted to Charles Mingus’ Prayer for Passive Resistance, and I couldn’t believe it.  I’m not exactly a jazz fan – it takes me awhile to appreciate the intricacies and dissonance and all that is going on between the musicians.  I’m a simple ballad kind of girl.  But I am curious about jazz, without fully understanding its complexities, the way I am about say, quantum physics.  So when I listened to the Prayer for Passive Resistance what I was knocked over by was the power of the prayer.  The music I felt was not soft and yielding but steady and driving—a determined support, a wish of the spirit to give strength and perseverance to all suffering beings.  I had tears in my eyes by the end of that painting day, and the paintings that came out of it are not nearly as important to me as that moment they represent, although I am interested in learning how to better capture feeling and mood in visual form.  It is one of my basic interests in this painting life and what I am always striving toward.

So this painting session was about Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.  I downloaded the four tracks from I-Tunes, burned a CD and played it all day long.  There is a simple, four-note motif that repeats throughout the suite.  Four notes that correspond at one point in Coltrane’s vocal tracks to the four syllables, ­A Love Supreme.  Repeated over and over in various forms throughout, it becomes a mantra that folds me up like origami.  Coltrane’s liner notes describe this piece as his culminating work, expressing his deep gratitude to a higher spiritual power. The four parts of the suite are: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm.  Some day I would like to paint four large canvases corresponding to each section.  But in this session I was just working up to that, getting a feeling for the music, grokking its depth, vastness.  I painted all the canvases I could find, while I had the chance. I read the liner notes in which Coltrane writes:

“During the year 1957, I experienced by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”

Right then I was struck with my own artistic epiphany.  I twirled around to catch it before it went away.  Happy Through Music.  Happy Through Painting. If I can add to the happiness of others through painting and teaching painting then perhaps I have found the spiritual component I have been looking for.  This is probably what has already been happening without my being aware of it, but if I can intentionally direct my efforts toward the service of others through the beauty of art, I can tap into a wellspring of energy and inspiration that will sustain this work forever.  I could see it all in that one moment, how everything, everywhere fits together as one whole. This moment was brief, ephemeral, but it was so real, like finding a pearl down in the depths and bringing it up to the surface.  Enough, for sure, to keep me going, certainly to be clear that now is not the time to give up.

It is too hot to paint here in July.  The air is so thick in the long barn that the colors either disappear altogether or become mud.  So it’s a good time to go away from it for awhile.

When I am away visiting family by the sea I don’t work much on art, not outwardly anyway.  I did some experiments, painting fabrics (and watching the kids painting fabrics) out on the beach.  A sarong, a velvet shawl, a lettuce-edged skirt and top, a satin pillowcase, t-shirts.  But mostly I come here to sit in the breeze and look at the waves, recharging my inner batteries.  There are early morning beach walks and all evening card games.  We swim with all the kids and make dinners and having extraordinary meetings with old friends.  We eat my mom’s pie, every night a new flavor, peach, blackberry, nectarine, strawberry, blueberry.  We are in pie heaven.

When I return to the hot August I miss the cool ocean but I quickly remember and am grateful to be back where I can work.  I start to pick up the threads where I left off, beginning with Coltrane’s affirmation, the four notes repeating in my consciousness, a love supreme, a love supreme, weaving together the path of ongoing, opening awareness, with the daily activities of a working artist.  Happy through painting.

Lil McGill at the press

Last week I spent all day making monoprints at a workshop at Wet Hill Studios in Nevada City. This is the home studio of Gwyn Stramler and Richard Downs, both successful artists and printmakers. Their beautiful workspace, expert instruction and enthusiastic hospitality made for an inspiring and rewarding day that has jumpstarted my adventures in monoprinting. I have been interested in learning how to make monoprints and monotypes for the last few years. At the DeYoung Museum, I saw the monotypes of Helen Frankenthaler and I was fascinated by them. Two friends in San Francisco have been taking a Saturday printmaking workshop at the City College there for years, and I have been longing to join them. When I heard of this local workshop I signed up right away, without thinking much about it. It was a strong artistic pull that I did not question. My art buddy Douglass Truth attended with me and we had a really great time exploring this new medium. Not surprisingly, Doug’s imaginative work yielded immediate awesome results.

It took me a little longer to get the results I wanted. Translating my watery, flowing abstracts with the oil based inks was a surprising challenge, and by the end of the day I concluded that I would need to experiment with the various water based inks and paints and mediums and come up with my own unique process to achieve what I was looking for. This again, was no surprise, having spent years developing my own process for my acrylic paintings.

All of this is immensely exciting to me, but the real draw for me about this art form is The Press. Oh, The Press!! The paper is wet then blotted, and covers an inked plate that bears the artist’s drawing, painting, design, etching, etc. . The paper is then covered with a felt blanket and gently rolled through the press, which compresses the paper against the plate , creating an embossment at the plate line and a delicious, deep transfer of the image to the paper.

So I am launched into the world of printmaking, thanks to the generosity of Gwyn and Richard for sharing their knowledge and allowing a glimpse into their artistic life and work. The workshop was truly inspiring and just what I was looking for. For more information about these printmaking workshops visit

Douglass Truth and Gwyn Stramler

Douglass Truth and Gwyn Stramler

Monoprint Workshop at Wet Hill Studios

Monoprint Workshop at Wet Hill Studios

Last Saturday I went to the Long Barn witsilk1h an injured shoulder. I took one look at the pile of canvases waiting to be stretched and said Ouch. For that kind of work I need both arms to be strong. So instead I moved to a quieter project, furthering experiments in painting on silk.

One of my clients has asked me to hand paint silk that she will make into costumes for a dance performance she is producing this spring.

What I have want to do is learn to use my usual acrylics on silk. I have heard that others have done it, know in my heart it is possible. So I have been setting up experiments. That is what this process is all about. Art is so scientific. That’s why I call this work I do Lil McGill’s Abstract Laboratory. I keep a lab book. I write down what I’m going to do, and what happens after I do it. Not always, but especially when I’m trying to solve a problem.

This started several years ago after I did a series of spectacular paintings. Each one was fantastic. I had finally hit my stride and they all worked. I thought, great, now I’m on my way. So the week after, I went back to the canvas and, guess what, nothing worked. Dismal failure. I was stymied. I went back and tried to remember what I had done. What exactly was the ratio of water to paint? What was the temperature? The humidity? How fast did I work, how calm and centered? I found that all these things affected the outcome of the painting.

Now I am working out the same process with a new technique – but after trying this additive with that medium and yet another softener, I’ve decided to put aside my quest for acrylics on silk. I basically want to keep the softness and drape of the silk, as well as the intensity of the color, but I haven’t achieved my desired results in the time I have to do this right now. Not yet.

So I’ve “resorted” to dyes. I picked some up at Ben Franklin and oh! What a revelation! Oh how glorious the way the colors flow. How simple and easy, how delicious. And it makes me wonder why I’m trying to make things so hard. Sometimes when you see something so beautiful, like a work of art on silk, you think, oh that is so complex and tricky. How is that done? And you realize after trying it yourself that this beauty occurs mostly by itself. It is a natural phenomenon and you just need to allow it to happen.

Allow it to happen. Or as my friend Shawn says, “Let it be easy.”

The colors my client wants include transparent, metallic and opaque. So there are many things yet to work out, also setting the dye and checking colors, working towards this vision: Dancers on stage, flowing in hand painted silk! I’m looking forward to seeing that. So today in the studio I will progress with my experiments.

And then I’ll stretch all those canvases.silk2

So this is what I think about today, the Canadian geese that nest here each year on the misty pond outside my studio window are already here a month (at least) early, the paintings I thought I was going to paint are unpainted. I actually didn’t really think I’d be painting today as it is still Mercury Retrograde (or Rercury Metrograde as Robbert calls it) for another week (at least). Mercury retrograde is a cosmic astrological syndrome which I can’t explain, but evidently happens three or four times a year and rules the realms of communication – among other things. It is not the time to make major decisions, sign legal documents, start any bright shiny new projects or expect anything to go smoothly. It is a time when all travel arrangements and appointments need to be checked and double checked. All gadgets like coffeemakers revolt and computers, well, forget computers, printers, networks etc. Expect it all to be difficult. So with that in mind, I told my daughter to delay agonizing over her college decision for at least 2 more weeks, took some time off work and got to the business of what activities mercury retrograde is really useful for. And there are a lot! mrandmrsgoose2

So I’ve been busy with all this regeneration, mending my son’s pants that have been behind my closet door for months, reviewing my tax stuff for college financial aid forms, revisiting my professional art career goals, rethinking my job, recharging my batteries for what appears to be a wild ride of a year ahead. This kind of retreat suits me and I wonder if I will be sorry when it’s over and have to plunge into action.

So how this relates to my Painting Day (Saturday!) is that today I did not paint a darn thing. I restocked, recycled, restretched, rekindled, retrieved, reconnected and recommitted and resigned myself to first things first: basically worked on stretching 19 new canvases, which obviously needed to be done before I could get to painting anyway. And with this kind of surrender, I had not one argument with my staple gun, and my newly re-synced ipod played all my favorite songs for the first time ever. It was a most enjoyable day. It was meditative and warm, quiet and expansive, and that’s a rare thing in our lives these days and I was happy to have it.