Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Painting is Not a Linear Progression

A painting is not a linear progression—it doesn't progress in one direction.  I go forward and back, forward and back, many times.  I try not to expect to keep moving along pleasantly toward completion, and to know that I'll inevitably do things I'll later need to change or remove entirely. 

Accepting that I'll be travelling backwards sometimes can ease my mind and make me more open to risk, mistake, and accident—all good things.  As Wolf Kahn put it, "You should always go further than you should." 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Dwell in the Subject, Not in the Painting

When I'm painting, it helps me to keep my eyes on the subject, rather than my painting, as much as possible.  I glance at the painting to match colors/tones/placement, but I try not to dwell there, or let my eyes rest there for too long, and instead dwell in/with/on the subject as much as possible.

My memory is only so good—it's hard to carry the memory of a particular color or effect for long. If I'm looking mostly at my subject, I have a better chance of capturing the colors and effects in the way I'm seeing them.

Also, if my eyes are dwelling on my subject, I can't get caught up in the details of the painting itself, or in any kind of exactitude.  Which furthers my cause—immediacy and freshness.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Don't Look Back

I try not to look at my painting after I'm finished.  Before that moment—as I'm running out of time or light or patience or energy, or when I've reached the point where each new brushstroke makes things worse rather than better—I take one last quick look around the painting, check to see if my eyes can flow around and across it without getting stuck on an inconsistency or something that bothers me, and then STOP.  I force my eyes away.  Then gather my materials, get back to my car, load up, and drive home—still not looking. 

If I stop to look after I'm finished, I can get caught in an endless cycle of wanting to fix every last little disorderly thing, and that can be deadly, both for the painting's look of spontaneity and for my spirits, which need to be treated kindly at this point.  I've given it all I have, for the moment.*  My best practice is to let myself detach and go in peace to whatever I need to do next.  I tell myself:  Your painting belongs to that moment under the tree—or in the field or by the stream—and that moment is done.

*I should add:  After a break of an hour or two, I MIGHT make a small change or two later that day, at home; but if the painting requires any more substantial re-evaluations, I try to go back to the original site the following day.  Sometimes it's worth trying. But usually, with small on-site pieces, if it doesn't work in one session, it won't work in two.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

It's All Good

It's always a struggle for me to feel OK about myself when I'm getting behind, but I would feel worse if I didn't make my family a priority over my work.  I guess it's just a function of trying to do multiple jobs—mom, artist, housekeeper.  As one of my female UMD professors, who had two young kids at the time, told me:  "You're always failing at something."  I think you have to try to get good at failing—you have to learn to feel OK in spite of it.  Otherwise you'll get too down.

I've been thinking about this with regard to painting more generally.  When I was walking around at Oregon Ridge park the other day, looking for a place to paint, I was frustrated and stressed until I told myself:  "Maybe today will just be a scouting day.  I've been meaning to get up here just to look, without time pressure, to see if there are any motifs that could keep me busy for a while—so I'll view today as my chance to do that.  No pressure to produce."  Once I chose that perspective, it was like loosening the stuck gears in my head, and the world around me opened with possibilities—all kinds, offbeat and otherwise.  No more "Well, maybe I could make that work"; no more trying to talk myself into things I really wasn't interested in.  Just the chance to wander and to observe my feelings as I wandered.  Even more bizarrely, I found something very soon afterward—a view of the stream that just felt wonderful.

(To digress:  For me, scouting by feel is key.  That day, I often noticed motifs that were pretty enough, or colorful enough, etc., but nothing that "captured my heart."  It's hard to find words for what that experience is like.  I told a friend afterwards that it was like looking in a mirror, like seeing my heart somehow, some manifestation in the landscape of what I adore.  In this case:  Color, nature, movement, darkness, light...deep nature:  a fallen log, mud, flowing water, dry grasses from winter catching light while new green plants grew around and over them, etc.  Change, decay, growth; plus all the artistic elements of contrasts, complements, movement, etc., as well.  A beautiful place to be.  To me.  I guess that's why it felt "right" to paint there.)

To return to being able to fail:  That experience reminded me of an Alex Lowe quote I have on my wall.  Writing about mountaineering, he says: "There are people who can't bear to fail.  Those people are on the short track, as far as their careers go.  You have to push hard, do hard things.  But you also have to be able to say, 'OK, today's not the day.'" 

That is key in itself, of course, if not THE key:  You can't allow yourself to get so discouraged that you stop.  Continuing to try is All.  But in this case, giving myself permission to fail that day, at that moment, gave me a kind of peace that unlocked latent potential.  It's the same as when I remind myself to play:  the "play" mode is conducive to possibility.  To hope, maybe.  To a feeling that "It's all good," or "Anything can be done, or at least tried, and failure is already forgiven."  A great approach to life!  A very helpful approach to painting, and maybe to creative work of any kind.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


My painting experience the other day was a good example of how painting—creating a decent painting—is sometimes just insane. 

I worked very hard at the first round—trying to see "globally"; trying to respond; trying not to think; etc., and ended up with glop.  Too many notes, too much information. (Afterwards, I reminded myself:  Unity is much more important than capturing color.  Which is not to say it's not great to capture a multitude of colors IF you can preserve unity.)  I was played out by then, and almost out of time, but I knew I couldn't go backwards with that much paint on the board—so I scraped it all down with my palette knife, then wiped it down.  And, just for experiment's sake, started over.

I had a palimpsest of sorts, with a bare shadow of what had been there.  I laid in some middle tones, not making the effort to reach the intense colors that I'd been seeing in the sunlight—settling for the wan notes of the shady periods.  Then, with the paint in many areas still thin, I laid in some high/light notes, then some dark, and finished with some thick highlights, plus a few marks to show more movement/direction.  And damn if it didn't work.  Painting is crazy.

Can I take this lesson and learn from it? I'm inclined to doubt it.  I always seem to have to push beyond in order to go back to simplicity.  I'll try to learn from it, though.