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Techniques – Color Duet with Kaffe FASSETT

How do we paint together?

Kaffe lives in London, I live in Big Sur.

He works in acrylic, I work in oil.

He is a textile designer, I am a fine art painter.

We come together around color, and we find all the color we could want in the still life.

In my mother’s house in Big Sur, we pull out boxes of objects saved over the years.

Polka dot ice cream bowls, sherbet hued vases, plastic fruit, stacks of patterned remnants handed down from my grandmother, or picked up at flea markets in our travels.

We start in the morning, a cup of strong coffee in hand.

We work small, usually on 11″x14″ stretched canvas to get started.

Kaffe sets up an array of objects and tucks his easel (borrowed from my mom) up close. At first, we paint side by side. This is because – in the first few days – I want to see how he thinks, and watch how he paints.

I usually paint my canvas with a warm undertone first, knocking out all the white.

Kaffe, in the other hand, works directly on the white, in a technique more similar to watercolor, with thin layers of color, and rarely any texture.

He mixes his colors with a small brush on a plastic yogurt lid. Often in a thinned pale yellow, he establishes his composition by starting with a outline of the objects. If he needs to adjust his drawing, he changes the outlining color to avoid confusion.

He continues to paint with a small rounded brush, starting light in value and going deeper and darker.

My approach is the opposite – dark to light – as I was taught so many years ago. He is always trying to push me lighter and into greater luminosity.

Typically, we finish a painting in two hours, and go on to try again right away.

Initially we start with a big jumble of objects, carefully arranged. As the days go in, each of us intuitively moves away from that, sometimes ditching the patterned backdrop for the simplicity of the cool gray card table – or choosing just one or two lemons and placing them against an extravagantly patterned tapestry in similar tones.

Whether working in neutrals or in rich and complicated jewel tones – or in a symphony of pastels – or the juxtaposition of chroma against neutral – it is the moment when the colors begin to sing to one another that we both look for.

The paintings go up on the mantel. We make another cup of coffee and observe them from a distance, noting how they read.

If he has signed his, then there’s nothing to be said. It is done.

If not, we chat about what might like a little tweak.

As the afternoon draws on, Kaffe heads off for a nap and I go home to pick up the threads of my own life – ready to return the next morning and try again.

Too soon, the week is done.

My own work is altered afterward, for quite awhile. I am more attuned to the nuances of color, differences in color temperature, and the possibilities of pattern. Eventually, my own predilection for shadows and strong form reassert itself – I am back to painting “me” again, but somehow different.

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Stealing Time

Before I was a painter, I was a writer, and the mother of two, a dedicated volunteer, and a community activist.

When I picked up the brushes for the first time, I had to steal one day a week out of my already hectic schedule. I’d put my kids on the school bus and head off to class in my old brown Volvo station wagon crammed to the gills with easel, paints and canvases.

I think I knew from my first small black and white study that painting had me hooked. It was almost impossible to make time for it, yet there was something so right in it I knew I had to find a way to continue.

Now my children are grown, and my life as a painter and teacher and writer has grown too. My painting career is wonderfully complicated, demanding, and rewarding, as hectic as ever but rooted in doing what I love, and loving what I do.

A highlight of my year is the one week a year that Kaffe and I come together paint still life’s.

He has just flown in from London and yet I am the one who is always late. There he is, at my mother’s table, already well begun, and may be onto a second painting already.

What has detained me this time? A class I am preparing for, a chapter for a book I am writing, an urgent phone call with a family member, or just getting a loaf of bread out of the oven at the right time.

In my painting career, I am on the road now traveling to teach and show up to six months a year, flying to Italy or Japan or Mexico to teach sketch or collage or painting classes, or across the country to Abilene, Texas or New Orleans, Louisiana, or Chattanooga, Tennessee.

It seems like I’m always preparing to go or just coming home.

And yet this one week a year, come what may, Kaffe and I paint together.

This stolen week feels impossible to arrange – for me and for him, I know – yet as the years go by has taken top priority.

Why is that?

One day it occurred to me that Kaffe was my first teacher, not only in painting but in living a creative life.

This week together is like drinking deeply from a well of crystal clear water straight from the source.

By the time I arrive, Kaffe has already arranged the objects we like to paint. I make a cup of coffee and find an angle at his elbow to set up my own easel.

We sit and look and talk and don’t talk. We listen to the radio – podcasts on philosophy or world events or meditation or great books – and take breaks to look at how the work is going.

It is glorious, and nourishing, and deeply inspiring. When Kaffe packs up his bags to head back into his extraordinary life, I am recharged with new energy for my own.

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The Art of Now – a Meditation on Painting

This year painting has become for me a form of meditation — the studio, a sanctuary — the work a solace.

These new pieces come from a place of sinking into the moment, using the tools of observation and rendering to center me in the now.

A new way of working with color has made an entrance into my work, both in still life and landscape.

The tools I turn to for contemplation and investigation include drawing, painting, and writing. Working with color is it’s own reward, creating thrilling moments of surprise and satisfaction.

In these new abstracted landscapes, color pools and expands and floats and vibrates, shimmering, harmonizing, delighting.

The still life’s here offer me a place to play with light and shadow, pure color, arrangement of physical spaces, presence and absence.

I like to work “all in” pouring myself into each painting and finishing it in one session, sometimes two.

Here, it’s is Nature that most inspires, an endlessly engaging source of joy, mystery, and transcendence.

“The Art of Now” opens Saturday June 8 at 5pm at the Carmel Art Association, on Dolores between 5th and 6th, in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

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Color duet – painting with Kaffe Fassett

Kaffe taught me to seek beauty, and to find it in color.

The beauty of a weird beige plastic card table against an array of singing red bowls in my mother’s house.

The hallucinatory pink wall in a sea of white on a walk through winter in Vermont

Before I was ever a painter he took me by the hand and introduced me to the neutral wonderland of Giorgio Morandi, and the joy of being in a relationship with the same objects for over 50 years.

When we were little and there was no babysitter he took us for long walks and told us stories, and we lay on the tall grass on the side of the road and listened, enthralled.

When we were older he sent us postcards from his travels – men on horseback wearing shoes with toes that curled, rows of colorful spices in a marketplace. His images in word and picture captivated my imagination.

And he introduced me to his favorite painters, Odilon Redon, Matisse, Sean Scully, and taught me that some of my greatest teachers might be found in books.

When we began to paint together, it was always color that inspired his arrangements. I sat nearby and painted my version sometimes literally at his elbow. In painting with Kaffe, I have learned to see color in greater depth, to seek its range of luminosity, the importance of capturing the subtle differences between hues.

It is almost as though he can hear the colors singing, and in painting what he sees he is keying the pitch. Can you hear it? Can you see it?

For years we have stolen a week out of our lives for this. Hours of looking and sitting and painting and standing back, looking again and again at the same objects in new arrangements. Trying again, seeing again. Because it is in this pursuit of beauty, the beauty of one color singing against another, that we both find meaning.

Last week someone asked us, don’t you get bored painting the same things again and again?

Never, was Kaffe’s reply.

And I was thinking, after ten years I feel I am just getting to know them. They have become old friends. My mother’s collection of vases in sherbet hues, the happy patterned bowls, the yellow and white striped vase.

Last year we made backdrops from textiles, jazzing up the pattern game.

This year we stripped it all back to the simplicity of the plastic card table and the white wall. The restraint made all the colors hum at an even greater pitch.

It is a wonderful game, seeking, seeing, and that moment when you get it right, and the intense satisfaction of the pursuit.

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The Art is Now – a letter to my students

Next week I’ll be returning to California to teach a new five day workshop at Esalen Institute.

This new course is called The Art of Now, and is designed for artists and non-artists alike to reap the benefits of art-making practices in their ordinary every day lives.

We will also explore habits that creative geniuses though the ages and across mediums have adopted with great success.

A benefit of working with these practices and habits is enormous, for everyone.

Part of it has to do with working with your hands. Even baking bread or gardening or knitting can offer us a therapeutic experience, connecting body, mind, and spirit. A delicious outcome is a benefit. A loaf of bread, ripe tomatoes, a soft and comforting scarf.

In my workshop I invite my students to replace strain with ease.

Is it that simple?

Just trade it in?

You want to create something but you’re just too tired. Or there is an invisible barrier between you and the practice that feels insurmountable. Or you are on the verge of a great idea but trapped in lethargy.

Or you keep telling yourself a story that is getting in your way.

Ease versus strain.

Energy versus lethargy.

Excitement versus fear.

In meditation we are invited to focus on our breath and to bring our focus back again and again as our attention naturally drifts away. Each new beginning is a victory of awareness that somehow you have drifted, and a return to focus.

In The Art of Now, we too work with beginning again and again.

Many beginnings in different modalities: drawing, painting, writing, collaging.

The goal is not to become a great writer, award winning painter, or museum exhibited artist.

The goal is not mastery.

The goal is to simply be, to be present, to become aware, to be here now, in this moment, as you are and with what is.

In this work, we knock on many doorways that lead into the same room, into a spaciousness and an easiness that can be cultivated, nurtured, and sustained long after the workshop is over.

We’ve designed this course so that you can arrive as you are, empty handed, and leave with the simple tools you need to sculpt a practice out of your daily life.

Come as you are, with nothing but your desire.

And if you desire, bring your favorite writing pen or watercolor brush or sketchbook or meditation cushion or some object you’d like to work with through the five days.

We provide everything you need for the workshop, and Esalen provides a beautiful natural space in which to rest, relax, and recharge.

If you have any questions at all, please feel free to email me or Tom.

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Mastering Creativity – a weekend workshop on artistic practices. At the Carmel Foundation, Carmel

Workshop Description:

Drop the story and just begin! With the guidance of award-winning artist Erin Lee Gafill and her husband, photographer Tom Birmingham, you’ll explore writing, painting, observational drawing, sketch & watercolor wash.

With color and line, tone and word, we’ll cultivate “beginner’s mind”, exploring the connection between art-making and mindfulness. By the end of the workshop, your sketchbook will be brimming with new work and ideas to explore.

Looking for a refresher course on color? Need a few tips on overcoming self-doubt? Don’t think you have enough time in the day to get anything done? Think you’re too old to start now? Think again! This immersive work-shop drops you right into the flow. No experience required.

The weekend kicks off with a complimentary Thursday evening slideshow, Finding a Way In, Building the Creative Habit. Join us for an evening of colorful inspiration and practical tips on creating constructive creative habits in your daily life in increments as short as the minutes a day.


Slideshow: Thursday at 7pm.

Workshop: Friday and Saturday, June 21 & 22, from 10am-4pm Seideneck Room.

Where: Carmel Foundation, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Southeast Corner of 8th and Lincoln


Slideshow Fee: $15 or free to workshop participants.

Tuition: $275

Materials: all materials will be provided

Sign up at

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The more I want to do, the slower I go

Today the list is long, with lots of projects and people to interact with, and decisions to make.

I feel pulled in every direction.

So I step away from the chaos and find a chair in a quiet room. I set my timer for ten minutes. I write out a list of what must be done today. I write detail after detail, small and large, in no particular order, until the timer goes off.

And then I set the timer for ten more minutes.

And just sit, and breathe, and pay attention to my breath.

My meditation teacher says that the breath is the flagpole, and everything else the waving flag.

I sit and find steadiness in the slowing down, the one point focus. A sense of calm fills me up like cool water in a cup.

And I notice all the flags waving in my mind.

They are plentiful, and beautiful, and various. They offer so many wonderful trains of thought to ride out on.

But when I become aware of them, these bright and flashy banners flapping in the inconstant wind, I bring my attention back to breathing in, breathing out, and this moment, now.

Often I have an insight during meditation that feels so strong and compelling I am tempted to jump up and begin working on it immediately. As if, THIS is the point of the meditation, THIS is the insight I have been looking for.

And I have found that it is better for me to stay present for the ten minutes of this awareness practice, and not chase after every idea in the very moment it arises. The awareness itself, and the daily practice itself, is the end game.

Sometimes, when my mind is on overdrive, I simply keep a pen and paper handy and write down the thought quietly, then continue with my meditation.

There it is, to refer back to later, as the day goes on.

I have found that for me getting grounded before launching my kite in the wind is better than running wildly willy nilly.

Though chasing dreams silly nilly worked for me when I was younger, it also undermined my health, and my peace of mind.

I remember a day many years ago when I had worked very hard for a longtime on multiple fronts and had many projects finally up and running, a success by any measure. And yet I felt completely hollow and drained, the opposite of successful.

I couldn’t understand why I felt this way, as everything I had been working for seemed to have come true. I should have felt elated, thrilled, triumphant.

But I had lost something.

I had become completely ungrounded.

It was the deep pain and anguish of that experience that forced me to change my approach.

I believe pain is often a tool, a gift that shows us that what we are doing does not serve us.

Would we change otherwise?

We change to get out of pain.

We change to restore balance.

We change to find happiness.

The more I want to do, the slower I go.

In this way, it becomes clearer to me what is the higher priority. And what can fall to the wayside.

I return to my list, and study it again.

Now I review all of these details from a calmer place, as though a larger portion of my brain is available to me.

And throughout the day, this short – ten minute – pause will be a touchstone to return to, when I have to make a decision, when I am confronted with aggression or defensiveness, when I am in danger of being run of my course.

Finding the flagpole instead of being the flag.

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If you’re ever in Florence …

4 am and music is playing, the wind howls, shaking the windows, the curtains, a window slams in the other room.

The music is coming from outside, wafting in, piano and cello, but the wind abbreviates it’s phrasing, and the window crashes like a cymbal and I am asleep again.

One time in Florence we traded in our car early and found a place near Piazza Carmine where the Brancacci Chapel is, up a flight of stairs in a room overlooking a busy street lined up with parking cones to avoid traffic. The street also has a bakery and a bar and a “farmacia”.

What more did we need?

That and the river so close, we could cross on one bridge and back again on another and take a morning doing this, traversing the Arno at dawn and capturing the rising light on the swift water.

We returned our car days early because it was raining and we wanted to be in a city where we could walk out a door and be in a cafe, drinking espresso and reading a paper and watching the people go by, shopping and talking and living their lives. A rainy day in the country – beautiful, yes, but we already knew it too well.

There is a sense in Florence, even now, of a way of life connected back a thousand years.

From the rose-tinted glasses of the visitor, it appears a simpler life, less constrained by work and more focused on family and food and leisure, time with friends, enjoying the pleasures of being alive, smelling the roses.

There is a church nearby I wandered into one day 24 years ago or so, small and unmemorable as churches go, but for the one corner to the right of the door where there is a chapel once shrouded in shadow, with an electric box to put a coin in, which would allow a brief span of electric light.

I remember pushing my coins into the box and the light turning on abruptly, with a click, and turning to see Jacopo Pontormo’s Deposition of Christ there, Mary in robes of azure and lapis lazuli, her son sinking to the ground, the mourning friend in thin pink robes, the gazes of astonishment of the others as they looked away beyond the limits of the canvas.

Where are they looking?

What do they see?

Then the light turned off.

I put another coin in.

I stood there for too long, my children restless, gone back outside for a gelato on the corner.

Now a foundation has funded the chapel and there is always light on the Pontormo, no need for coins. But still I go and stand there, and ask the same questions.

It is almost 8 am and the day, here, now, dawns.

The music has stopped playing and the wind has died down.

Sun rises over the Santa Lucia’s.

A new day awaits.

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Italy changed me

Italy changed me.

And I wanted to be changed.

I went for the first time when I was thirty, my son 11 years old, my daughter five.

I wanted to connect with the creative source that had nurtured so many of my favorite artists, and to restore some of the broken branches in my family tree.

My family tree is far from straightforward but learning about your ancestors is so fascinating.

I have been trying to piece together my family tree for some time now and have learned a lot from using online tools such as social security death index obituary records.

There are so many genealogical resources online nowadays, it is much easier to track down your relatives.

Anyway, with this in mind, I thought we would retrace the footsteps of my great great grandmother, the Modernist painter Jane Gallatin Powers who founded the Carmel art scene, died in Rome in 1944, and is now buried there in the poet’s cemetery by Caius Cestius’s Pyramid.

I thought I would go to the Medici Chapel, which I knew from books, and see Michelangelo’s devastating Pietà, and monumental David.

I did all those things, and saw all those things.

And those things affected me deeply, and still do.

But there was something more, in Italy, for me, something deeper and closer at the same time. Something that is hard to name but that I feel as soon as I cross the Arno in Florence, step onto a vaporetto (water taxi) in Venice, or grab that first espresso in the Fiumicino airport in Rome.

Something ineffable, intangible, unnameable, that saturated my waking hours then, lingers after every visit for weeks and months, and returns to me even now in dreams.

That first visit we took our children with us and for three weeks enjoyed the bounty of Italy, the good food and wine, the hospitality of new friends, and the bittersweet discovery of old familial haunts: via Margutta, the Spanish Steps, the Borghese Gardens where my grandmother once shook her fist at the carriage driver for asking too much money, successfully talking his fee down by half.

As a family, we basked in the sights of unparalleled art and architecture, classical sculpture and the ruins of ancient temples, farmers’ markets overflowing with nature’s bounty, long walks through gorgeous places, both urban and rural, and the most delicious gelato.

Now, 25 years later, we still reminisce about that first visit, those precious moments indelibly etched in our memories.

What is it? Something in the air and water and light, the food and drink, the pace, which despite modernity is still humane and the three hour lunch a common occurrence even midweek.

It is the history, the people, the connectedness of people with place.

It is the lived values that are everywhere we go, from the rampant vineyards, free range pigs, and bountiful gardens of the old castle in Tenuta Spannocchia where we take a week a year for an artistic retreat, to the shops shuttered for an afternoon rest you will still find in Montecatini, Montepulciano, and Siena.

We come home from Italy and try to embody everything we learned there in our lives here, at home in Big Sur. Still, we tend to get caught up quickly in our ambitious to-do lists, our work, our hustle.

But at least now we have Italy ON our “to do” lists as a necessary part of our year, an aspirational week of living in balance with all of these things we love, and in community with our fellow travelers.

This year, our Awaken The Artist Within excursion begins in Florence and ends in Orvieto, with visits to Siena and Civita Bagnoregio “the town forgotten by time”, a week in a fifteenth century castle at Tenuta Spannocchia, even a day at a natural thermal spring to “take the waters”.

We will shape our time as we have come to love most, with good food and drink, walking and sharing, sketching and painting and writing, with just enough structure to give us what we need and enough free time to rest, relax, and restore.

This is a group trip to Italy like none other. Our Awaken The Artist Within Tour is small and personalized, based on the experiences here that changed my life, and could change yours too.

Join us?

Full details at