Here at the Montana Artists Refuge, I find myself limited to the materials and ideas at hand. In Portland, I have access to two physical locations of Powell’s books as well as various used book stores and the big national chains. I also am within easy travel distance of four large art supply stores. Delivery of online orders is fast and easy. In Basin Montana, none of the above are present. So I have to make do with what I have available to me. And what I have available is sometimes just eccentric enough to be more than merely useful.

Along with my Phaidon biography of Cezanne (by Mary Tompkins Lewis) and a Dover book of Durer’s Drawings, I brought a copy of Gregg Kreutz‘s Problem Solving for Oil Painters. The book resides in my studio where I thumb through it when I need to rest my fingers and arm and eye from the physical act of painting.


I’m not recommending (and yet not not recommending) the book exactly; Kreutz is a bit too dogmatic for my tastes. Yet he does give me some things to push off from.

Sometimes he says the obvious, but when it’s placed with other ideas, it feeds my own delight in structuring thoughts. For example, he says “turning reality into painterly effects requires not only creativity but insight and empathy…. Insight and perception — each element must create an idea in the painter’s mind.”

And a bit later, “Every painting must have …two subjects — the person or still life or view that you are looking at and the painterly concept that you will have decided will best express your reaction to that [motif].

Not bad, says I, but I would add a couple more elements to the requirement for making a good painting: first there’s the subject itself that must be depicted, explored, played with, and, duh, painted; then there’s the empathy and insight that the painter brings to the subject; third there are the painterly constructs, the actual materials and handling and delivery, that go into making a physical object to look at — these differ widely but must be thought about and made to work with the object and the empathy; Finally, the controlling idea of the painting has to be there when it’s finished.

The High Note Cafe, 12 x 16, oil on board.

So I find myself pleased — Kreutz has started me thinking and I’ve completed some thoughts beyond what he says. Of course, this might well be what he had in mind, since problem solving is his subject.

However, while much of what he says is ho-hum or immediately useful in solving a problem, some of what he says makes me argufy.

For example, he says, “For the painting to give satisfaction to you while you’re painting, and to the viewer afterward, there must be a sense of problems being solved.”

Huh?, I say, “is this true?” Sometimes it’s the absolute lack of of a sense of problem that leads me to love work. I think of Hanneke’s still lifes and it’s the effortlessness that they give the appearance of that thrills me.

Of course, Kreutz’s further observations on any given dogma often are useful, which is why I brought the book with me. For example, in discussing shadows on faces, he says, “remember, the shadow doesn’t get lighter as it nears the light, the light gets darker.” That seems quite close to a philosophical position, found in the center of a “how-to” paragraph. i’m still pondering the implications for aging and tired concepts that “the light gets darker” can have.

Kreutz’s position on organizing the palette tends to send me into snits: “Is your palette efficiently organized? he asks, and then recommends a rigid structuring of color and layout, with a palette that’s bigger than many of my paintings. While his basic concept, that “making pictures is hard enough without the material and craft side of it holding you back” is a good one, he talks of spending forty-five minutes in the morning, setting up his palette, cleaning off the dried skin, adding paint, cleaning the mixing area, and so forth.

If it took me forty-five minutes to start my day’s work, I’d be frustrated and bored ( a terrible combination of feelings) before I began. For my palette processes, I use a wax paper layer over an ordinary sized plastic palette, throw it out when it gets messy, have a general notion of where the three primary colors go with white in the middle and blacks around the edges. It takes me three minutes to set up in the morning. But at night, I generally get ready for the next day, not just cleaning brushes and tidying messes, but also refilling medium containers, saving or tossing the paint, and studying what I have done during the day so my brain can be thinking about the next steps while I sleep. It’s almost exactly the opposite of the process that Kreutz uses.


Kreutz endears himself to me when he validates my own processes, of course. He says more than three colors in combination are redundant — and then admits he often violates this concept. Exactly.

He speaks of attacking a bad painting with his palette knife; in a “fit of pique” he scrapes off all the paint and finds good things in what remains. He also uses his palette knife to blob paint on a painting where it needs emphasis, a most satisfying combination of physical action and resulting vision corresponding. I use the palette knife in almost exactly these aggressive physical ways. And my textile training gives me the additional tool of scissors:

I would never be mulling much over Kreutz, except that, here in my Banker’s building studio in Basin Montana, my resources are limited. I find that the bits and pieces I read feed my thinking in a way that a larger set of resources and long pieces of dogma wouldn’t. It’s lovely that limitations can springboards for some thinking about my own ideas and processes.

What ideas or processes used by someone else have set you up for refining your own concepts and processes? Have you ever found that being forcibly limited in access to materials or ideas to be a broadening experience? Do you work better when you disagree with the “expert” opinion?

To that last question, I must admit that, yes, disagreement often fuels my creativity, even when I come around to agreeing in the end.