Thursday, June 28, 2012


I was thinking this morning about the kinds of compositions I want to do.  More and more, I've been thinking that so much is in composition.  Of course how you use paint, how completely you finish, how you see and use color, etc., are all crucial too, but your choice of composition is maybe the deepest basis for the emotional content of your work.  

Monet's water lily paintings were such a break, such an invention/revolution in terms of composition.  How he used paint within them, his level of finish, how he "saw" were huge too, but the view into a pond of an infinite sky with infinite and yet perfectly cohesive color were such as hadn't been seen (from what I've read, anyway).  I'm drawn to compositions that see intimacy, emotion, and color all in places that aren't typical landscape scenes -- that are fragments abounding with infinity, like the water lily paintings.

I want to do a series of the creek next to which I grew up, but the views of the creek that I've been working with are more traditional, in part -- wide, open, not very complicated by foreground and background.  Not that that kind of complication is central to me, but I'm concerned with how to interpret a scene in an suggestive way rather than a descriptive one, and some traditional (not to mention serene) faraway views don't seem to present as much opportunity for gesture and movement.  I don't work like Wolf Kahn, who does a sort of abstraction-of-faraway-things beautifully -- identifying large masses, making some tiny marks within them, then adding a few fine gestural marks.  I want more broad gesture, more emotional evocation, more movement throughout.  Though I do love those few recent pieces of what he calls "spreading foliage" (one is featured at about 6:45 in this video).  Maybe because they're less concerned with unusual color and seem just in thrall with color and movement.  They take up the space of the canvas like (some) abstract painting -- like a Joan Mitchell.  I think that's in part what I want:  to take up the space of the canvas like (some) abstract painting does:  Lots of attention to balance and all-over movement, energy, life -- and yet to attend sensitively to colors, tones, etc.  

This morning, though, I was a little bothered when I found myself thinking that when it comes to the creek, my love for it makes me happy to subordinate myself to the beauty of the image -- I'm happy to paint it as it is, to try to do it justice, and homage.  That thought stopped me because I've sometimes wondered whether certain kinds of painting are more concerned with the painter's vision and interpretation, or ability, than with the her/his response to the subject.  And when I find myself thinking, in the case of this subject, "It's OK just to respond," I think, have I not been responding?  Have I been thinking instead?  It's not that I'm concerned about modesty, or that I disapprove of self-centeredness or self-promotion, but I wonder about the experience of the viewer when looking at paintings that are more about thought than about authentic response.  Does she/he feel at a distance, or even alienated?

Now I've come full circle in this line of thinking, though, because I also feel that some level of distortion, or abstraction, or mere suggestion, can make a painting more immediate and emotionally affecting -- certainly more so than a very tight, realistic rendering.  Maybe I want to see a distortion that arises from an emotional or visceral or aesthetic response, rather than from a more calculated assertion of style.  Or maybe I'm just looking for a type of response that mirrors my own?

Who's to say, of course, whether a painting is the product of emotion or reason; whether an artist's use of distortion brings a viewer closer to an experience or holds him outside of it; or whether it's preferable to feel enthralled or alienated.  Just the viewer, and different viewers will disagree. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Rages and Trances

I finally put that diptych to rest -- maybe only temporarily, I suppose:  it may need more work, but I need to move on, for now. 

I finished "in a rage" -- pushing myself against the deadline of picking my son up from school, my head in a swirl, concentration muscles straining.  Half unable to concentrate, really -- which can work sometimes.  I made an effort to remember what I was saying to myself (because I'd like to know if you can conjure up those thoughts that you hear when you're working well, and apply them when you're not), and it was:  "I can do this; I can handle this.  Anything that goes wrong, I can fix.  I can find a way out."  Willing myself into "flow" mode, or willing the flow not to leave me till I got done.  A sort of false bravado -- when you have to will it, maybe it's already not there.

But then there's that saying, something like, "Whether it's possible or impossible, believing makes it so."*  When you're working, you can convince yourself of all kinds of things.  It's as if the fantasy spigot has been turned on in your mind -- any thought can be entertained as viable, somehow.  And so I'm able to imagine that I can do no wrong with paint, and that if I err, I have the power to redeem the error, almost instantly.  Something about rushing, too, impels the force of that belief:  You're hurtling headlong toward the end of the painting, and you marshall all your wits and see everything "all at once" -- which enables the "all at once" effect you want.  I just wish I could turn that on more often in the painting process.  Maybe if I can identify it better, I'll be more able to call it forth?

It's funny:  I was just reading science fiction writers writing about writing in this week's New Yorker, and my thoughts above sound like science fiction:  "calling forth the force," etc.  I read somewhere else recently that many artists feel that they create their work "in a kind of trance," and I like that idea.  In part because I can tell myself when I'm not working:  "You can't think about that (problem you're having with your painting) now; you can't fix that now."  I put aside my queries until I'm working -- until I'm in a position, and frame of mind, to do something about them.  And then when I am at work (I tell myself), I'll have the "trance" to help me out.

*Googled it:  It's Shakespeare, and the slant is different:  "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."