Purple Prose

Purple was the most rare color of ancient times. There’s a beautiful thing — the words of which I can’t remember perfectly or find this morning to share — in which Marcus Aurelius makes the point that his friend can go get wrapped up in affairs of the day, the debates, the contention but he is resolved to “be the purple” the colored band that distinguishes the white garment of the senator. He wants to stand apart as the color does rather than getting embroiled in things that will distract him from what is important. I try to remind myself of that all the time. It’s not easy to “be the purple” in these days, but maybe it never was.

I always wondered what was the big deal about purple as a color. I mean, all you do is mix red and blue. Simple enough but when I started to learn about the historical sources for colors I learned first that the red and blue that can make our idea of purple were hard to find and the purple of ancient times itself? It was produced from marine snails. It was no small chore, either.

The most prized and expensive dye was called Tyrian purple, which came from small mollusks called murex snails. The natural historian Pliny remarked on the rather unpleasant smell of the murex conchylium — one of the marine gastropods often used to produce the prized purplish-red dye. A number of mollusks in fact contained hypo-branchial glands whose secretions could be used to turn fabrics various shades of purple. Pliny and Aristotle note that it wasn’t until the snails died that it was secreted. Consequently, for the production of the pigment, we should imagine thousands of rotting shellfish laid out in purple dye workshops along the coasts of the Eastern Mediterranean. Early twentieth century experimentations in trying to recreate the purple dye in fact led to the conclusion that eight thousand mollusks produced a single gram of the substance.


Their purple — which I’ve tried to recreate above — isn’t exactly my idea of purple, but it worked for the Romans. Apparently,

“True Tyrian purple, like most high-chroma pigments, cannot be accurately rendered on a standard RGB computer monitor. Ancient reports are also not entirely consistent, but these swatches give a rough indication of the likely range in which it appeared.”

You can learn more here — good, very detailed article in Wikipedia and a fascinating article here. The featured photo came from the article in the in the Jerusalem post.

What Do I Paint?

I’ve been thinking about this since my friend asked me, “What’s your obsession with reality?” First, everyone has an opinion. I have opinions, too, about what artists paint, but generally I keep them to myself because there’s something behind every painting that I cannot possibly know. Second, what moves a person — person A — might not move person B. That’s obvious.

What a person sees in a work of art can change through their life, too, depending on who they are, how old they are, where they are in that moment, their mood, their physical health, biases, expectations, education, good god…

One of the paintings that moved me most deeply is a fresco panel I saw in Milan. I am pretty sure it was painted early in what is known as the Renaissance. It’s a painting of Vulcan. I am the first to admit there is nothing spectacular about the painting which is why it was in one of the many storage/display rooms that exist in the Pinacoteca in the Sforza Castle. But it said everything to me. Besides being a nice painting, it was painted mostly using green earth. Why would Vulcan be painted with so much green? I have no idea. Maybe the artist had a lot of it? But I saw in that fresco (the first one I’d seen in very close range) how magical it was to paint with dirt on plaster — gypsum, crystals, basically. Dirt came to life. I had not yet been to fresco school and had no idea that I might go someday. But colors — where they came from and how they worked — fascinated me.

I went back to see Vulcan I think three times while I was in Milan. Other paintings I liked during that long peregrination in that fantastic city??? I can’t even remember them all. It was beyond description and if I’d gotten what I went to Italy for? I never ever would have had all that — and before 9/11!!!! ❤️

Well, for a long time most painting was religious art. I’m OK with that. Painters need to eat and God is worth the time. Some of these paintings were just paintings, some of them were more than that either spiritually or because of the world they showed. Sometimes their paintings said, “This is what I see in my life every day.”

I like those paintings. They are offerings across time, letters in bottles. One such painting is in Verona, Saint George and the Princess, a fresco by the Italian painter Pisanello. It’s in the Church of Sant’Anastasia. It’s very difficult to see in the church because it’s way up there near the ceiling, but it’s a world. Who’s world? St. George’ world? No. Pisanello’s world (and some fantasy??).

St. George and the Princess Pisanello

I have tremendous respect and gratitude for these messages in bottles. When I was writing Martin of Gfenn I spent a lot of time looking at a copy I have of a medieval book of hours. These are books for meditation, but the most beautiful ones (usually commissioned by some noble person) have scenes from daily life painted around the meditations. And why? To me this is beautiful — because the person who owns the book isn’t in Heaven, but in the world. There are seasons, and within the seasons particular necessities — harvest, boar hunting, apple picking, spring flowers. These books were little gifts to me from past centuries. “Here, Martha. This is what we saw in our time in our world.” OUR world because now I’m living in it.

I paint two things; landscapes and self-portraits. The self-portraits have been labeled “expressionistic.” And, they are a little odd. I thought about them all as a (so-called) body of work the other day and realized they are all about seeing. Every one of them.

The first one is about seeing what’s out there. I’m wearing my all time favorite Halston wrap dress given to me by a friend in the 70s. The shoes are red heels. The sofa began as an experiment to see if I could paint velvet. The panel all this as on? A failed painting I wiped off. The flowers, bunnies, all that, is straight from a medieval tapestry. When it came together it was a big surprise to me. Until I moved here and hung it on my living room wall, I didn’t know what it was.

The second is before seeing everything I saw in Verona. It is me in a hotel in Munich the night I arrived, so tired that I went to sleep before I even knew it. A couple of days later, I got on a train for Verona where I stayed a month. The light from an Indian restaurant across the street was coming in the window. The name of the painting is Danae. Danae was one of the women Zeus raped. He came to her in her sleep, raped her, and left behind gold. There is gold on those sheets…

The third is me looking for something in the gigantic grave that is the earth. The strange part of this painting is it IS the Refuge, but I had not yet ever been in the San Luis Valley and the new plants coming up from this vast decomposition are — BEANS. If you look, it’s the same landscape as in my newest crane painting. The fourth is literally me looking in a mirror, but with a twist. I’m holding my cellphone to take a selfie. My phone cover looks like a watercolor set (it does) and I painted this with oils. It’s a little arcane, but I was amused. It’s a representation of a representation of myself. It was fun.

There is a lot of symbolism in these paintings but it was all accidental. I was, “Huh? Where did that come from?” Painting activates, involves, the unconscious. I guess that’s what gets people all jazzed about finding “hidden meaning.”

Seeing is not that easy for me (for everyone?). First it’s mechanically challenging. I’ve worn glasses since I was five. And, one of my eyes has a condition called “asteroid hyalosis” which means it has all sorts of gunk inside. You might remember when it looked like I’d need retinal surgery because my eye doctor couldn’t see into that eye to see if there was a detachment? I have to look OUT of that eye. I think most people get floaters over their lives. Just think of an eye that is MOSTLY floaters with a few little windows of clarity. It’s no biggie for me, but it sure freaks out eye doctors. Second, seeing what’s in front of me — maybe for all of us? — isn’t easy. It’s a discipline, a quest. Seeing a landscape, even photographing it, is, for me, incomplete. Painting it is seeing it. If — as I have a couple of times — I inject myself into a landscape it’s me seeing me seeing the world.

Putting a person into a painting changes it. It gives the painting an “actor,” and that opens a whole world of stuff to people looking at the painting. I realized that when I started the tree painting which was originally going to have my friend not me. But at the moment I started it Covid started and I realized that if I put her into this painting, it would become not her looking at a tree which she absolutely LOVES — and we go visit it from time to time — but my friend looking off into a scary unknown, an infinite, dangerous, horizon. If it were Bear and me? It would no longer be a scary painting because this is where we go, what we do, what we love and share with each other.

I also know that this kind of landscape — even as a photo — scares very urban people. I’ve been told and I’ve witnessed it with my friend Pietro (who lived in Zürich and grew up in Bari) when we were in the wilds of Arizona, looking for a ghost town. He found himself in the middle of nowhere and was terrified. “Ho paura, Marta, per favore, torniamo a Tombstone, ti prego.” For Pietro, tombstone was great. It was a town he’d been in love with from movies, but the REAL Arizona? It terrified him. I remembered how I felt the first time I was alone on the convoluted streets and lanes Zürich old town. Avuto paura. We turned around.

One of the things I like most about nature is that I’m not the boss of it in any way shape or form, so painting nature (my obsession with reality) is a record of my surrender. They are also “religious” paintings in their way, or my way. I cannot know what will happen when I’m out there except for a few simple things like the shoes I wear, where I go, who goes with me, if I have water, something about the trail. Once anyone is ON the trail the trail is the boss, friend, ally, challenge. OK, this is less true about the gravel road I walk at the Refuge but still true. The trail is itself. Since most of my journeys into the natural world have been solo (with dogs) I’ve had the chance to fully be wherever it is I am. Dogs enhance that because of their complementary senses.

There’s a self-portrait I would love to paint, but I don’t know how. It’s me on a single track on a sharp rocky hill with my dog Truffle. We’re being dive bombed by a red-shouldered hawk. It was a crazy moment. Wondrous and scary. Of course, we got out of the way. Maybe the hawk’s baby had somehow gotten on the ground? It could have been that it had dropped a prey animal and didn’t want my dog to get it. Red-shouldered hawks are noisy when they hunt, too, so no way to know. If I paint it, it will be because I saw it — but the painting will say weird shit to people who haven’t been there. I imagine it painted from an angle above the hawk, but not that far above the hawk. From the height of, maybe, a second hawk.

Another is me and my wolf-dog, Ariel, staring eye-to-eye at a mule deer doe in a thicket from a distance of about 18 inches. How that happened? It was a cloudy August afternoon, cooler than usual, I’d just finished reading Riddley-Walker which is a fascinating, mesmerizing book. I wanted to get out, so Ariel and I headed out. The novel was still filling my mind. We took a narrow trail across a hillside, turned a corner, and saw the doe. She took off. For some reason, I decided to follow Ariel instead of her following me. It was an interesting walk and a little iffy (rattlesnakes, but…). After many twists and turns and odd stops there we were, looking at the doe who had hidden in the sumac (lemonade berry) bushes.

I know that if I paint these they will change from landscape to something else because a figure will be in them. It is not then “This is what I saw.” It is “This is me seeing what I saw.” When I paint I am conscious that I am offering my eyes to the person looking at my painting, like the wonderful artists who gave me the 13th century book of hours. People who buy my paintings (if I meet them) usually say things like, “I’ve seen that!” I love that. What a miracle to see something. What a miracle to share a vision.

Is every painting trying to “say” something? I don’t think so, but every painting will, even if it’s “only” (ha ha) “I saw this.” Some paintings hit us over the head with their symbolic meaning. Others are (god forbid) just “pretty pictures.” I’m pretty happy painting a pretty picture, honestly, I’m grateful that (so far) nothing has inspired me to paint Guernica. Or Dada, which I love, (and the reasons behind it)and have made several pilgrimages to the Cabaret Voltaire in its honor, but I’m grateful nothing in my world has driven me to represent anything like it. I’m no revolutionary. I’m just a person with a paintbrush alive on this planet with (finally) time to paint.

Renoir once said, “For me a picture has to be something pleasant, delightful, and pretty — yes, pretty. There are enough unpleasant things in the world without us producing even more.” Renoir suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis. Painting is a kind of medicine for me, certainly. I have a friend who’s a painter, but now he’s blind and he has rheumatoid arthritis and STILL he wants to talk about painting more than any other subject so we do. I describe everything to him. He would rather hear my paintings than not know them at all. He gave me my first (and so far only) big canvas. This is what is on it. It is a Sandhill Crane walking among some young willow trees. It’s 4 feet wide by 3 feet high. It represents a sandhill crane walking among willow trees. I saw this. No one else did. No other human was anywhere around.

“creative expression is not just a means of getting attention, although some have approached art that way. think of art as a way of connecting, of sharing your insights with others.”

-nita leland


The Scarlet Emperor Beans are creating my summer garden, and they are doing it with passion. These hot days (88 F/31 C) are just what the beans love most. And I? Well, I don’t love the heat but (as every summer) the initial shock is over and I begin to adapt, I know I’ll be shocked when fall arrives and the first cold nights. Then I’ll just be happy.


I’ve read a few articles about what makes a person creative. They seem to take one tack or the other. The first is that “everyone is an artist.” No. I’m not sure I know what an artist is, but I know not everyone is an artist. To be an artist, a person has to make art which, right there eliminates a lot of people. As for what is “art”? Another wormhole I don’t want to crawl into, and who cares? The second tack I’ve encountered in my reading is that creativity is the ability to solve a problem with the resources at hand. Yes.

I’m tangled up in a painting right now, and I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it. Why? I started it. That’s one reason. The studio is the coolest (in all senses) room in my house (north side). I’m fascinated by the struggle. I started it in a way I only started one other painting, and that painting was a lot smaller and the argument for the underpainting was more legitimate than with this painting. The light in the painting is the strange, unfiltered, angled light of late winter which gives the feeling that one is walking on shadows. There’s also the sense that the earth — the dirt under everything — is thawing, about to wake up for Nature’s Great Beanfield. When I began the painting, I had a strong sense of that. So I took out my trusty Natural Pigments and painted dirt with dirt. It’s set me up for a different kind of painting than I’ve ever done, but I think I like it fine, so far. Besides, who really cares? THAT is, I think, the bottom line for anyone doing creative work. If the artist cares too much it won’t happen; it’s paralyzing.

That’s been my experience in attempting to teach people to draw. I’ve had so many friends who want to draw, but who are afraid they will get it wrong. It’s a conundrum because in a lot of other subjects we learn the emphasis is on “trying hard” to “get it right.” I think creative work is a little different. Technique matters, but I think it’s secondary in the learning process. Primary, I think, is joy, the way kids have fun drawing and painting. There is a potential internal reward to any creative work, and that’s the pleasure of doing it, even if it doesn’t turn out the way you (think) you want it to. And this one? Well, I still can’t say…

After today’s work (6/11/2022)

Wind and Cranes Oil Painting

This has been about to be painted for several months, but I got intimidated, so… I pulled it out today and started with what I knew. Time will tell but I guess I like it fine, so far.

The featured photo is of the two brushes I’m using right now — both belonged to a dear friend who is dead. It means a lot to have them, to paint with them, and to care for them.

In Good News

I got out a failed painting today and was preparing to paint over it. BUT… I put it on the easel and looked at it.

“Hmm. I think I understand you, failed painting. You’re not failed. You’re just different. Maybe you’re the future.”

“Could be,” said the painting. “Thanks for not painting over me.”

“No, thank you.”

“You see what’s missing.”

“I think so, but whatever. We don’t have anything to lose.” I squirted a minuscule amount of Cerulean blue paint on the lid of an empty yogurt container. A tiny bit of white. Got what seemed to be the appropriate brush. Did the thing — put light on the water. It is a WETLANDS after all. Then I put light in the sky. Then I needed magic in the sky and I opened the tube of magic, and as I did, I felt like weeping. “I missed you so much!” I put some on the yogurt lid but I didn’t put the brush into it. I put my finger in it and did work with my finger. I love that paint so much, I wanted to touch it. I didn’t even want a 6 inch brush handle between my paint-covered finger and the painting’s surface.

It felt so good and smelled so good. Linseed oil and lapis ultramarine, that miracle color. “I need gray.”

“I’ll be that for you.”

“I think I love you.”

“You’re not the first one.”

“No, I know that.” I thought of how in the so-called Renaissance this color was used to paint Heaven above the Virgin Mary in frescoes (really rich patrons) and I thought, “Well, this is Heaven,” as I finished a stormy sky out at the Refuge. I decided to liberate myself from “getting this right” because I don’t know what “right” is right now. I’m heading into terra incognita with my lapis ultramarine blue. What a marvelous vessel, and I trust it.

I also see now what’s wrong with the painting. It’s a painting of wind. The storm cloud should not be in the center. OH well. As they say; paint and learn.

I tried so hard to describe it to my friend, a painter who is now blind, BUT he has it in his mind that the lapis ultramarine would be even MORE intense than the synthetic. It isn’t. I wouldn’t even call them the same color. Lapis ultramarine is transparent, grayish, magical, cooperative. It doesn’t insist on anything. I wish so much I could paint with it on plaster, but I don’t see that happening. The closest I can get is the gessobord. SO…I bought another one with the remainder of my Christmas money. We’ll see where it takes me.

You can kind of see what I mean in this paint chart from the Natural Pigments company. “lazurite” is their lapis ultramarine. The chart shows the paint in the tube and then tinted (with white). It’s become very hard to get now because of the chaos in Afghanistan. Mine is from Argentina. I was ready to spend my whole Christmas present ($100) on a tube of lapis ultramarine from Afghanistan, but… Maybe someday.

No Lead in My Studio (So far…)

Yesterday I went to the museum in Del Norte to collect some money and restock my notecard offerings. It was a good weekend for me financially, and I was able to buy surfaces to paint on. Not the BIG canvas, but some pretty good sized panels and a linen canvas. With all drugs, you can be happy with “cheap Mexi” until someone gives you something better. Last summer I painted on oil-primed linen and I don’t think I’ll ever be the same woman.

It’s a small painting — 8″ x 10″. It turned out that this oil-primed linen is a wonderful, wonderful surface. For the last little while I’ve been trying to figure out how I could organize this technology myself, stretching and priming my own canvas, and it turns out I don’t want to. A lot of the stuff that becomes paint and related substances is poisonous. Some of it is very poisonous. I had to draw a line. Sometime down the road? I don’t know but for now…

The woman who runs the museum is also my friend and as you might know if you read this blog regularly, she lost her husband this past summer. They were married for 58 years. I’ve been listening/talking to her about it all this time and, recently I’ve heard something different in her voice which is she is beginning to see what she CAN do now; she’s looking into the future.

I spent some time Thanksgiving chatting with a friend in Switzerland who lost her dog not long ago. Through a lovely concatenation of events, she has a puppy, but the emptiness of the loss is still eating her up. I can imagine — but don’t know — people saying “She was just a dog,” and the kinds of things people say when losing an animal is out of their experience. Obviously, I don’t feel that way, but I have lost 25 dogs so I have a lot of experience losing and recovering.

As I was talking with my friend at the museum I tried to support her recent decisions to paint her house and travel to Europe (yay!) with the salient point that we live here and forward. I remember the moment I realized that. It wasn’t all that long after my mom died. I was opening the garage door and suddenly had an epiphany that my eyes were in front of my face for a reason. The same with my Swiss friend. Nothing replaces what we’ve lost, but it seems to me that even in calm and ordinary times, we’re a slightly different person every day than we were the day before. A big loss hastens the transformation.

I think that’s part of the sorrow, strangely enough. We don’t just lose the person/dog we loved, we lose the part of ourself who was (in a way) an attenuation of that person/dog. I recognized quickly when I had to put my last Siberian Husky, Lily, to sleep that it marked the end of trail-running Martha even though I hadn’t been able to run for a while. The possibility of that person existing was completely gone with Lily’s passing. I didn’t just lose my beloved — and very old! — dog; I lost a big part of myself, or the way I saw myself.

These recent weeks — selling paintings and confronting the inner Wicked Witch of the West — I have realized I’ve held onto my mom without even knowing it. Part of my trauma with selling a painting to strangers was letting go of yet one more finger of that woman whom I loved in spite of everything.

Learning More about Being an Artist

the first imperative is to work. That much I get. But today, I sold another painting and learned more.

Don’t worry; I’m not freaking out. I know the person I sold it to, not really well, but still I know her. This morning I took a painting to the museum to hang where the one that sold Saturday had hung. The buyer works at the museum and wanted to see it so she followed me when I hung it.

“It’s the river,” I said. “Frozen, mostly.”


“The paint, though. Yeah. It’s special.” I told her all about where the pigments had come from and that I had seen them “in the wild.” I told her about the prehistoric “Buon” fresco I’d seen in the limestone cliffs north of Verona where the green in this painting “grows.” “All these colors,” I said, “except for that lighter blue there and the white, come directly from the earth. Well this color,” I pointed at some burnt Sienna, “was heated to bring out the iron color.” I pointed at the highest part of the sky and told her about ultramarine and lapis lazuli, how special it is, how expensive in olden times. I told her about the book I wrote about the artist who painted fresco. Then she said, “I want this painting.”

She went to the bank and came back with the money. “I love it, but hearing you tell me about the colors makes it mean even more.”

That made sense to me. Colors are miraculous. “It’s all dirt,” I said, “everything we are, everything we eat, all of it, all these beautiful things.” I personally see it all as miraculous.

Talking to a customer THAT way is totally possible and made me happy. It’s part of what my paintings are; part of who I am.