Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Leftovers and Palette Gremlins

-By Michael Whelan


"Don’t paint too carefully. You want some accidents to play with."
-Norman Rockwell

Week 47, 2016 :

It's a chilly day in late November, with the wind blowing wildly outside and the power flickering off every once in a while. So far it has been coming right back on, but I guess I'd best write what I have to say in a hurry and avoid the chance that we'll lose it altogether.

I've been unusually aware of time's passage this year because I've been posting a modest painting each week, drawn from accidental shapes of paint or palette leftovers from my regular work. The notion came to me at the end of 2015, after I successfully managed to post the day's Julian number in an image corresponding to that number each day of the year––using photos from my own reference files or ones taken for that purpose during the course of the year. At the beginning I didn't imagine I'd be able to go from 1 to 365 without missing a number…but with some amazing good luck and a few helpful friends, I succeeded. It was lots of fun in spite of -or maybe because of- the challenge, and I felt it had a beneficial effect on my mind's eye. I mean, by the end of the year I was seeing numbers EVERYWHERE.

Number 66

Number 100

Number 121

It became an exercise in opening one's mind, I guess you could say, and I felt it had worked well in that respect; I had become more observant while I was engaged in the process. So when it was over, I looked for something new to do that would be as fun, but without the onerous every-day deadlines. (And besides, though I did have several duplicates, my personal number-photo hoard had been depleted by the end of 2015!)

I looked around for a new challenge.

Like many of us, I'm often inspired by patterns and random shapes found in unexpected places. Nowhere does this happen more reliably than in my own studio. I suppose it helps that my workplace is an untidy mess, and that I'm often searching for a sketch or tool that is hidden under other things. During times like these I often see things that aren't there: faces in smears of paint on a palette, a tentacle in the shadow thrown by a branch I brought in, etc. Occasionally I'll use that surprise "model" to generate an image but just as often I'm preoccupied with my task and won't take the time to do anything with what I've seen. Remembering that during last December, I thought, Aha! That was to be my goal, then: once a week I would take a sheet of discarded palette paper, or leftover paint from a palette, or spilled paint on my drawing board, or whatever––and do a little painting. And so began 2016.

Discarded Palette,  Week #36

Resulting Painting, Week #36

Because the first few took the shape of small scurrying creatures, I got to calling the series “Leftovers and Palette Gremlins”.


I've had plenty of accidental shapes to play with. During the course of a year, I go through a lot of palette surfaces, whether disposable palette pads or scraps of board that I employ to test paints on while I'm working. Then there's my drawing table: it's a 43x55" surface which I always keep covered by a sheet or two of masonite or mat board. They get replaced frequently because I'm so sloppy, but man, the cool shapes that can happen there! It gets distracting at times, especially if I start doodling in and on the shapes while talking on the phone, and an hour can go by where I've spent more time drawing on my table than on the painting that’ the table is supporting!

Random spilled paint, Week #46

Resulting Painting, Week #46



It's been a challenge but ended up an interesting experiment, one that I hoped would be beneficial in addition to just being fun.

First, I've become impatient with the amount of time time I've been throwing into my work. I hoped that forcing myself to do something quick and frivolous at least once a week would help me discover keys to more efficient creativity. Hah.



Second, I dislike being wasteful. It always bothers me to scrape the unused paint off a palette at the end of a day. I see dollar signs winging away when I dispose globs of expensive paint because I know they won't be workable the next time I got to work. better to try a quick sketch on-the-spot and use it up, right? Maybe it will turn out to be worth keeping.

Third, it's that mind-opening thing again. Apophenia, or more accurately, Pareidolia: seeing something not there, and [as we do] deliberately provoking or allowing your mind to play with around with reality.


It's where much of the fun is in art, for me. And that's my final reason for this game: just to inject more fun into what i do.

So now I'm onto week 47, and I'm trying to decide what to do next. A smear of paint on my drawing table cover was turned into a tree, with other marks suggesting rocks or something. Okay, instant island. Add a figure. Hmm...

Week #47, in progress
What else? I started to paint in clouds but stopped: the image was getting boring. Something else is called for, but I have no clue what. Cthulhu rising? A dragon? If anyone has any ideas, this is your chance to weigh in. In the meantime, I plan to throw a paint-soaked sponge at it and see what random chance wants me to do. You'll be able to see the end result on my website later this week.

Now go have some happy accidents!

-Michael Whelan



Michael's year-long "Leftovers & Palette Gremlins" project can be seen on his blog at:

Also, Baby Tattoo Books has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a retrospective exhibition of Michael Whelan's work, to be held at the Riverside Art Museum in California this February, as well as a BRAND NEW ART BOOK, "Beyond Science Fiction".

For more information please visit:


7 comments:

  1. Great project Michael! Thanks for sharing, love how you are finding inspiration with the discarded palettes.

    That one you are working on at the moment needs a nice pop of color to jazz it up. I see a some type of ship either landing or rising up, engines blazing, steam rising,...the whole works.

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  2. Great post, Michael! Regarding week #47, maybe some sort of cosmic event... like the moon exploding, or sun dying.

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  3. Great project-great idea. My suggestion for 47 would be two rather huge eyes (godzilla?) staring back at the figure just above the wet water.

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  4. The mark in the sky seems to be begging to be attached to a flying plesiosaur-type creature drifting through the clouds

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  5. Or an alien spacecraft. I like this game. I think it up, and someone else paints it!

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  6. The man imagines he sees a woman he once loved, his first love, whom he's never forgotten. Time has passed on, and like the ephemeral clouds, their relationship changed and they moved on, but she touched him, and he realizes--looking back--that he's never felt that way again about any other woman. And whenever whenever he looks up in the sky, he sees her image: not distinct but amorphous, and like the clouds, she too is out of reach.

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