New Video Project

For the past several months I’ve been developing and posting a weekly video on youtube.

The subject: composition in painting.

Like composition in writing or music, in painting it forms the structure, or armature, underlying the image.

The color shapes of the painting, cloak that structure. So we feel the structure, we feel its organizing role, even if we can’t necessarily see it.

The artist’s canvas or paper, their picture plane, becomes their playing field. For myself, as a painter, I want that playing field alive and dynamic.

That means as I plan a painting I think more in terms of it being design-driven rather than subject-driven. The painting obviously has a subject, we see trees, and hills, and so on, but they are in service of the design.

Compositional structure has been on my mind for a long time. I wrote a book Mastering Composition over a decade ago, it’s sold over 45,000 copies and is still going strong. But in workshop after workshop since then I have kept refining my thoughts on it.

So that led me to start the youtube video series. I try and keep each video at around 6-7 minutes.

Here’s one of the first. I’ve improved the sound as the weeks have gone by.

what makes a good compositon thumbnail

Let me know what you think.

Best wishes


P.S. If the series seems interesting to you please click here and you will receive the free weekly video each Tuesday.

To Pay Attention

What a crazy expression, to pay attention. To. Pay. Attention. Why pay? To whom?

As a kid if an adult was telling me to pay attention, they were trying to get me to do or understand something I was not interested in. And if I didn’t pay attention, I would pay for it.

If I pay attention now I’m the one interested in understanding.

You’d think the more complex and demanding, the more your attention gets engaged. Yet think of that complete, encompassing attention we may have connecting to nature — those moments of deep, quiet presence with hardly any thought at all.

Attention’s root is tenir, to hold. From experience, that seems right. When we are focussed on something deeply we are held. Time slips by. We re-emerge. The hold on our attention gets broken by distraction. Sometimes external. Sometimes internal.

The most lovely thought on attention is from the late poet Mary Oliver, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” 

Beauty and our Moral Compass

I went to see Father Greg Boyle last night. He started Homeboy, a series of businesses that employ LA gang members when they get out of prison. I’ve heard him speak before. He brings tears to my eyes.

He doesn’t preach, he speaks of kinship, and tenderness, and beauty, and the dignity of the gang members he works with. The connective tissue his stories wove through the audience contrasted starkly with the daily barrage of news reports that I allow to assail my attention each morning.

The feeling of contrast between the two experiences, the inclusiveness of Father Boyle and the divisiveness of the news, gave me an insight into what creates beauty and what creates ugliness.

Beauty we experience when we feel a connection to the indivisibility of our existence. Take for example the magnificent blue-green gem of our planet. We see, if we explore its functioning, an interconnected, symbiotic perfection. A perfection far beyond the ability of man’s intellect to construct, and very likely beyond our ability to fully understand. When we feel aligned to that, and appreciate that, and see its unity in function, we experience beauty.

When man steps outside that interconnectedness, which is where most of us are, most of the time, we step in varying degrees into a wilful distance from it and find our attention becomes motivated by non-inclusive qualities like power and greed. The by-product of that labor creates ugliness.

We are now so inundated with small-minded, grubby, profit-motivated thinking and so awash in their social and environmental ugly backwash that it is hard to imagine acting as a society from a connection to that unity—for a common good winning over private gain.

But when I watch the news I feel that unified connective presence, or at least the promise of it, broken for someone’s smaller partisan gain. It is always a short-term gain, with a long-term cost. A grasping separation from the possibility of a seamless coupling with the wisdom surrounding us. That reminds me of a line in Kant: ”Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe…the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Kant marvels at our awareness of that moral law, or moral compass, within. He doesn’t suggest, as a philosopher, that it is rare. Rather he implies we all have access to that. And my contention is, acting in accord with that produces beauty. In service and work, such as Father Boyle’s. Or say, in artistic expression. Separate from it and the results are ugly. Perhaps not a conscious awareness of creating ugliness. Perhaps it even feels noble and righteous. But only from a limited viewpoint. Sooner or later we see where it fell short, and we see the ugly byproduct it left behind, that someone else must mend.

Beauty: a pull to wholeness and inclusiveness
Ugly: a carved off divisiveness, a grasping for ownership

That, at any rate, was my insight last night. Of course making broad, sweeping statements opens me to my own blindnesses. So if I’m missing something important, let me know. I’ll let, in the spirit of my post, Mary Oliver have the last word, from her poem, Spring

There is only one question
How to love this world.

Alpha — Beta

When I was on my recent canoe trip the guides, when talking together, often made reference to beta, as in “when I left the rafting company I gave them good beta on the Mountain River trip.” Curious, I asked one of them, so what’s this beta?

He said, guides give each other beta about the river — good campsites, best lines down tricky rapids, hikes up side canyons. Beta is direct, first-hand knowledge passed to another. Good beta received also rests on your knowledge of the person, their skills, personality, knowledge and experience as a guide to be able to accurately assess how you take the beta.

Alpha is what you experience first-hand and know. The lives of the guide’s clients may depend on good alpha and beta.

It hit me immediately the profundity of the idea for our lives. How much do we really know first-hand? Alpha. How much do we know from someone who has experienced something first-hand? Beta. Then how much do we accept as true, whether ideas, facts, rumours, gossip and opinions, that are, what… certainly several steps from real, tangible first-hand experience?

For example think of something as obvious as the world being a sphere. I have been high enough in a jet to see the subtle curve of the earth. Not enough to know it is a sphere but add to that actual footage of looking down from the space station where I could see the dramatic curve of the earth, the Apollo photo of the whole earth and so on, then I can piece together a pretty solid case for the statement, the earth is a sphere, as something I know. Meaning something I perceive rather than believe.

I’m not saying, at least for myself, that unless I can perceive it I won’t believe it. But I do think it worth stopping for a second and consider how far removed most of the ideas that wash over us each day are removed from first-hand experience. If we think of the environment, health, education, national interests, both inside and outside our borders, most of it arrives with no direct connection to someone we know and trust. We also know, or believe perhaps, that much of what passes for news as been spun one way or the other by someone who wants to make sure we don’t receive any alpha on that topic. And add to that most of our perception rests on a deeper set of learned beliefs about self, country, mores, and religion or spirit. Almost all of it not alpha, even though most of us hold some of these beliefs as sacred and not open to question.

I sat for some time thinking what, outside the immediate boundaries of the property I live on and close neighbourhood I live in and the people I live with, can I count as alpha? How much do I really know from first-hand experience? Not learned, second or third hand opinions and biases.

If you do the same, you may discover you know more, or less, than you thought. But I found this idea of alpha knowledge certainly slows my mouth down from spouting the next thing that pops into my head.

Alpha has to do with finding truth. And we know from Keats, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Next I want to look at finding alpha from within, or knowledge from inner resonance to truth.

The Nahanni

Virginia Falls

A Twenty-One Day Wilderness Canoe Trip

The Nahanni for me is mythic. Like the Nile, or the Amazon. I first heard of it at fifteen from a school teacher. He had done the river in the 60’s and one of his party had drowned. Later I read The Dangerous River about a trapper who lived on the river for two years in the 20’s. For those that grew up canoeing Ontario’s lakes and rivers, the Nahanni represents the Holy Grail. I’ve wanted to canoe it for over 35 years.

On June 28 I flew to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada, flew from there to Fort Simpson and from there for two hours in a Twin Otter, a school bus sized float plane, over mountain range after mountain range deeper and deeper into the wilderness. We landed on the Mooseponds, a shallow lake only deep enough to land a plane two weeks out of the year.

As the sound of the plane faded away over the mountains nothing prepared me for the remoteness and the silence. And the beauty.

The Nahanni starts at the Mooseponds. It then drops for sixty five miles in the longest stretch of navigable white water in the world. Not chutes, standing waves emptying into a pool so common in Ontario rivers. But mile after mile of tight, technical class II and III rapids. I had never heard of class III++ before. I got introduced immediately. Pale grey boulders the size of volkswagens loomed up hidden in the silt-filled water.

I have an image of myself: you know, manly, whitewater adventurer guy. The image exists in an internal world of fact and fiction. The Nahanni humbled it, forcing me to reconsider, embracing it one moment, crushing it the next. Those rapids hacked, exposed and remodeled that vision of myself into something more real, and more modest.

And I did dump, that is flip and swim, eventually. Everyone dumped eventually (except the guides). I dumped in a rapid aptly named the Massive Rock Garden. I was in the stern and we careened off a rock so hard and so unexpectedly I felt we were sideways and airborne before either of us could react. Even in a dry suit, the glacial water shocked me. Holding my paddle, feet up I bounced and careened off boulders and rocks able to do nothing against the tempest of the current. A quarter mile downstream the river curved right and I managed to eddy out left.

By day six the river flattened out. We moved with the current mile after mile past unnamed mountains and streams. We saw no one. No planes, no jet-streams. Nothing but untouched vast empty wilderness, with an occasional moose or bear.

Then we came to Virginia Falls, twice the height of Niagara. And below the falls followed four steep-walled canyons of spectacular beauty.


Fourth Canyon

When I was younger I went on several seven or eight day canoe trips. I always felt myself settling deeper and deeper into a communion with the land. I wanted to know if or when I would say, that’s enough, I want out. I thought twenty-one days might do it. What I hadn’t thought about is that now I’m married. So I missed my wife and our kids within a few days. So that interfered with any kind of simple comparison to past trips. Second, the Nahanni is alive and powerful. Both in physical fact and in spirit. She pulls you into her orbit, breaks you open and rearranges you. She controls the narrative. So unlike a week-long river trip in Ontario, say the Petawawa or Magnetawan, both challenging in the spring run-off, subdued during in summer and fall, the Nahanni felt more like a wilderness expedition, using canoes.

In the final couple of days I was ready to come home. The necessity of discussing plane connections and so on started to pull us out of the grip of the wilderness. Cold beer and steaks never tasted so good back in Yellowknife. Then I found myself floating in a surreal world of six airports to get home. The aimless mindset of airport travelers, the identical stores and restaurants and airport terminal architecture gave me the feeling of moving through some futuristic dreamscape unconnected to the natural world.

I’ve been home for ten days now. Every night in every dream I am still camping along the banks of the Nahanni. On the final days of the trip as it was coming to a close I was so happy I had finally embraced the river, followed her from her headwaters to where she empties out into the Liard and then the Mackenzie to end up in the Arctic Ocean. I saw it as a once-in-a-life time experience. Something I would not have to do again. But there is another river up there. A little further north.


I went on the trip with an old friend. The rest of the group, eight in total, plus two guides, were all from Ontario. Blackfeather was the outfitter. Excellent company!

Pilgrimage to the Sacred Mountain

sacred mountain

I left Panamint Springs early heading east into the heart of Death Valley. The air was cold, below freezing. A range of snow-topped mountains lined the far side of the valley. I felt strangely embraced by Death Valley, embraced by a life affirming connection, despite the name.

I headed into Death Valley for a 12-day retreat. Four of them would be a solo vision quest fast — water, sleeping bag and whatever I carried inside my head.

Eight or nine years ago I canoed alone into Algonquin Park, a wilderness park some hours north-east of Toronto. I went in after Labor Day. I felt at home during the day. The weather perfect, the lakes, rivers and campsites deserted. Only at night, after night fall, I felt completely exposed and vulnerable.

I feared whatever drooled just beyond the light of my campfire. The same terror propelled me, as a boy, several feet across my bedroom floor into bed at night to avoid him snatching at my ankles and he had me taking the basement stairs three at a time to avoid being sucked back into the long corridor of darkness and dread behind me. My kids have similar irrational fears now. Irrational, but real to them. They won’t go downstairs at night without me. I’ve learnt as an adult to navigate that one. But how many irrational fears lurk in my awareness. Irrational perhaps, hidden, but infecting and deflecting my thoughts and actions. My boyhood fears subsided but deep down I knew they still coloured my perception of life affecting everything. I wanted to face them. Head-on. That’s why I went into Algonquin alone.

Well, face them I did. Not particularly well as it happened. I came out alive, of course. But I did not, as the hero with a thousand faces does in each and every myth, face that cruel ogre with a swamp full of bones, and live to tell the tale, let alone bring a boon back to my village.

So this time going into Death Valley, I again wanted to face that fear. This time during the solo four day fast I would have a base camp a mile or two away. That link I thought might settle the fear. One thing though, I knew the north woods. I understood it. I felt at home there, at least during the day. Death Valley was new. It’s true, no large wild animals lived there. But Death Valley did have rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widow spiders, and tarantulas. So I bought a camp cot so I’d be off the ground. And a really nasty long-lasting insect barrier spray. I did not want to find any of those things in my sleeping bag or crawling over my face at night.

Our group of ten and four guides met at Furnace Creek, so called because at 130 degrees it boasts being the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth. In summer. This was mid-winter and cold. We drove twenty miles up the highway and then drove thirty minutes in four-wheel drive vehicles down an untracked wash to camp. In a word, remote. Mountains surrounded us. But the ones to the east held my attention. High, regal, and calling my name.

For the next couple of days the guides helped each of us form an intention to take into our vision quest, an intention with an edge. Sharp, honed, and honest. Then we had a day to hike off from base camp to find our spot to camp solo.

I walked east up the wash towards those mountains. I found a spot. But just beyond it, visible from my campsite, a heaving mass of grey-white rock oozed from the mountain side. I cringed and backed away in terror. I felt this cleft exude evil. I could feel the great devouring evil spirits of Death Valley would bleed out here at night. Right there. I slinked away, back down the wash around a long arm of hillside until I felt safely distant. I’d be hidden from those evil spirits that I knew escaped each evening from that portal of ruin.

Behind that hillside I found a cove of rock, the ground a soft silt. I felt safe, protected. I would camp here for four days. Alone. I went back to basecamp and in two loads carried my four one-gallon jugs of water to my campsite. My rations for the four-day fast.

That night the guides prepared a feast and we went to bed. Then at first light in a beautiful ceremony of separation we each headed to our solo campsite. I had discovered that in Death Valley in winter anything that might harm you hibernates. So I slept on the ground looking at the stars. Which I did a lot of since night fall came a 6:30 pm and first light came around 6:15 am. I didn’t sleep much for some reason. I watched the front edge of the Big Dipper swing in its aligned arc around the North Star. I learned during the first night the direction the handle pointed that soon promised the sun’s return. They were long nights.

On the first morning the pull of the mountains to the east gripped me. I had to explore. The distances deceived. Things looked close because of the dry air. I walked and walked. For miles. Until I stood finally right beneath a circular wall of mountains towering above me. I found there a small red heart-shaped rock. I had found a grey heart-shaped rock in camp. I exchanged them there in a ceremony of replacing the old, the grey, the worn out, with the new charged energy of courage and life. I yelled up at the mountains, my echoes reverberated back, surrounding me.

I had come to the Sacred Mountains. Not just metaphorically. I stood beneath them now surrounded, and felt their deep cleansing infusing power. I felt an unmistakable connection, a powerful union of whatever I was with everything around me. I felt charged with an irrepressible life energy that knew no fear because I experienced my being as deeper, more whole, more silent than any agitating fear I could conjure.

On my return from that hike hours later walking down the wide wash I noticed ahead the discharge of grey rock seeping from the mountain.. But now rather than cringe and retreat, I turned and walked up to the slim and mire. I stood before it. At the top of that pestilent mass twenty-five feet above me, a head looked down. In that afternoon light it looked like a huge cobra’s head staring down at me. I saluted him now, honoured whoever he was, bowed to him, aware of a separate and sentient presence. But now I felt connected to my own presence, and nothing could shake it.

Standing before that wall of grey oozing rock and feeling safe may seem a paltry breakthrough. For me it harkened a new connection to spirit. To Spirit — to my self held in the arms of my Self, in the safety of Truth and Being. A mystic connection infused my awareness.

I returned to camp. Some huge irrational separation from Being had gone. I felt whole and invincible. I had worshipped at the feet of the Sacred Mountain and my fear had been washed clean.

Each day of the fast I settled deeper. My mind slowed, then stopped. By the end I was in “the big empty”. The mental chronometer wound down. I had read once of the Hopi. They had no words for past, present or future. Or for time. They had two tenses, for things that already existed and one for things coming into being. I understood that idea. It resonated with the slow and open awareness of my connection with the grand vault of space and mountains around me.

This was my second reason for coming to Death Valley. I wanted to be held in the heart of the land. I found instead of sitting down to watch the sunset as close to the horizon as possible, you know, efficiently, I sat down at around 4 pm. Not much else going on. No jagging sense of other things I had to do. No list of more productive callings. This was it. Here. Now. Empty. Full. Content.

The experience brought to mind part of poem by Charles Simic. “Silence is that vast cosmic church in which we always stand alone. Silence is the only language God speaks.”

I’ve been back in LA some weeks now, yet I still feel that big empty silence inside. My attention still rests there, the silence within the silence, even here, in West LA, the belly of the beast, as far as superficial callings go. Yet that silence allows resonance with every tiny impulse of this big, glorious Mystery that surrounds and engulfs us. And in that resonance I think we find the foundation of the experience of beauty.
The School of Lost Borders organized the retreat. They have run these 12-day retreats for over thirty years, no advertising, all word of mouth, always full with a waiting list. We had mainly men in our group, but usually more women attend.

Video – Resonance

Beauty, at least in my experience, has much to do with resonance. A connection that exists between ourselves and something else; a fit. I look at resonance in this video from two experiences — one resonant but superficial and the other deep and radiant.

Video: Subjective and Objective Beauty, part 1

In the Search For Beauty video series I shot last summer, I introduced the series by comparing subjective beauty and objective beauty.  I decided not to include the piece, since it seemed to skim over too many ideas too quickly.  This video–as well as the few that will follow–are an in-depth exploration of subjective and objective beauty.  Is beauty something that we project onto the world around us, or are certain elements of our world intrinsically beautiful?  I hope to move closer to that answer.