Friday, January 28, 2011

second pass

I had to chuckle as I worked on "arc" today, because this piece is really open-ended and is thus a vivid contrast to the landscape I wrote about in the last post. As I try my idea of an abstraction keying off of a specific cliff, I truly don't know how it will turn out. I am painting on an as-I-go basis, though I do use some artistic judgments. For example, I established some value contrast today, with the idea that this is a kind of base layer, in opaques, to be covered over with successive layers of transparents to build the cliff.  But, who knows where the next step will take me? Nor do I know how much "cliff" will be left in the final piece. I guess I am assuming that because there is a drawing underneath everything that I put on top, some essence will come through. But I don't know that, nor do I know whether I might not go back in with drawn marks later on. I just don't know where it is going.  But that is what is exciting: There is no predetermined image that I am trying to achieve. It will go where it goes. I am documenting its creation here mostly to record my musings as the process unfolds, so that the next creation might be more informed. The idea of "cliff-ness" is still in my mind, I just don't know how literal I want to be. This may be too referential an approach, but I won't know until it is finished. I am continuing to work on the older 16"x16" cliff-ness panels, also with arcs, that reference no actual cliff. I posted an image of one in process on January 16th. It will be interesting to see if the two approaches produce clearly distinctive finished pieces, or whether they will morph into such similar results that the differences between their processes are indistinct.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

back to the past

My studio time over the past few days has concentrated primarily on finishing a long-promised (to friends) landscape of the cliffs that line the north side of our valley.  I have postponed working on the painting primarily because I'd rather be exploring oil and cold wax, and this painting required a return to old methods.

I finished the piece today (image at left).  As I have worked on it this week, I have revisited many old mindsets and problems, and was glad to think that I can leave them all behind, now that this piece is done.  At the end, today, I had a flash of insight about the differences between the two styles of painting and why I prefer my current methods.  Painting a representational (if somewhat abstracted) landscape, for me, is almost like working backwards.  That is, I can see what it is that I intend to represent in paint, in two dimensions, and the question is how to get there from the blank canvas.  How to put down paint, how much, what hue, with what stroke, creating what edges, etc.  Too many choices, perhaps, since I simply refuse to do completely realistic work except in an occasional still life.  As I work, the choices that I make are seldom clear to me, are usually iffy, and there is always the question of whether the effect will be what I seek.  I have to get to the representation of that landscape out there, and the stress is palpable to me. I am seldom completely satisfied with the finished piece.

With the abstraction of the cold wax method, rather than ask whether a mark is correct for the finished piece, I put down paint and say, oh! and where will this take me next?  That is, the process is open-ended, an exploration, a creation of something truly new.  I can encourage the surface to go in a certain direction, and I can change that direction if something more interesting comes along.  The piece becomes, eventually, whatever it is meant to be.

I remember, in several of the workshops I took while trying to master oil painting, the various instructors talking about the dangers of overworking, of making one mark too many.  How frustrating.  With my current processes, there is no such issue.  Every mark contributes, and no mark is "wrong".  The development of the piece is, for lack of a better word, pretty organic.  For whatever reason, this process suits me, suits my curiosity, suits my joy of creating.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

the first go

I followed my impulse yesterday and began a 24"-square panel by drawing on it with reference to the photo posted on Thursday. I used an oil stick.  Then I added a first layer of oil and cold wax over it, and left it to dry, as shown at left I'm excited about developing it further next week.

Today we are off to St George, Utah, the closest city of any size, and at 3,000-feet elevation, much warmer than Torrey these days.  The purpose of our trip, in addition to enjoying the warmth, is to purchase a high-definition television.  Our 20-year-old set is finally giving up the ghost, and we are tired of not seeing the edges of the screen of high-def programs ("Where did that soccer ball go?").  So we are biting the bullet and entering the 21st century. A technician will come out next week to hook up the set to our satellite service; I wouldn't dream of trying to do it myself!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

being referential

I spent a couple of hours today scouring Capitol Reef National Park for cliff formations with arcs, and photographing them.  I'm feeling a pull toward sketching them, an activity I seldom undertake, and at the same time am observing myself returning to old impulses and methods.  Am I pulling away from abstraction?  I don't think so; I have vague visions of using both approaches. It has never worked before, but it is an urge that keeps returning.  I seem periodically to feel a need to unify the abstract and the representational or referential -- and this is another such time.  Such attempts have never before been permanently productive, and usually have been discarded as a wrong path taken, yet I also acknowledge that they always feed the process: How can they not?

So I am once again feeling the urge to reference a concrete (well, sandstone) thing in my work, but am thinking that somehow I can also be true to the last nine months of abstraction.  If nothing else, I had a lovely day gazing at the strata and the desert varnish that characterize our local formations.  One of the photos is posted above.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

old perspectives

I have made good progress on the "larger" pieces (12"x12", 16"x16") that have been hanging on my studio walls, though the smaller panels seem to be difficult to bring to closure.  My fascination with arcs and semicircles continues, and the three panels that are most exciting right now all contain the gesture.  I spent time today experimenting with the grout spreader in combination with natural arm gestures on a new panel, but ended up wiping it all out.  Some ghost marks remain, and will inform later layers, but all in all it didn't work to try to combine the two, at least not at this point.

As I worked, I found myself remembering all the cliff faces I've seen with arcs on them, future amphitheaters not yet eroded enough to merit the name.  I wonder if that is what is pulling me into this fascination. There is something that draws me to sandstone cliff faces, time and time again. I feel at home when I am in their presence.  They embody a permanence and stability that endure eons of storm and erosion, with a grace and beauty that never change. I realized that I haven't gone out to the park and visited the beautiful sandstone formations there since last fall.  When the weather warms a bit, I'll do that.

Perhaps because of this, I've returned to thoughts of painting from the real verses painting without references. But I don't want to leave the abstraction that I am doing.  I'm not sure where these impulses will take me, but a chunk of time spent on the panel whose image appeared in the penultimate post here has morphed a bit, and I'm posting the newest iteration above.

Monday, January 10, 2011

mechanical and organic

One of my favorite tools for scraping back oil paint in cold wax is a metal grout spreader that I found at a hardware store (pictured at left). I love the swath of parallel, curved lines that it provides.  Sans mots (see post of August 21st) has its mark in the upper left corner.

As I have begun to work on larger surfaces (I just put down the first layer on a 24"x24" -- yikes!), I find myself making larger gestures with or back into the paint.  A natural gesture that seems to be a current favorite is the curve that presents itself by swinging my forearm naturally from the elbow.  This is not the perfect curve of parallel lines provided by the spreader; it is a frequently uneven, somewhat elliptical, single-line curve.  But it also has a vibrancy and eloquence that is endlessly changing (no two are ever the same) and, at least for the moment, endlessly fascinating.  The picture in the previous post carries one, sideways.

The contrast between the mechanical and the organic speaks volumes to me.  Man-made vs nature, controlled vs spontaneous, precise vs carefree, scripted vs ad-lib: The list could continue for pages.  The presence of each characteristic in a painting makes a clear statement, and which mark I use becomes laden with meaning in a new way.  It forces me to ask myself:  What do I want to say?  And:  Am I saying it?

This relates to the concept of effortless mastery in my last post, in a variety of ways.  Mostly, I think about the mastery that a mechanical tool like the spreader provides, which is easy but also fairly automatic and perhaps robotic, in contrast to the huge investment of knowledge, training, intent, and ambition that feeds into the mastery of an organic moment in paint or in music.  This is why I am in love with the arts: To the extent that an artistic statement is organic (because some are mechanical), it speaks volumes to me, and it is that quality of a mastery that is complex, imperfect, organic, and human that I seek to achieve, and in which I rejoice whenever it is encountered.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

effortless mastery

My new year has begun with a new orientation toward cello practice that may also apply to painting. I have been doing little of the latter since returning from Spain: The arrival of winter temperatures led to the discovery that the heater in my studio did not work, and when it is below freezing in the day, and often below zero at night, a space heater won't do the trick. A temporary repair last week is keeping the room comfortable now.

I haven't settled back into a painting routine yet. My last cello lesson of 2010, however, led to a shift in perspective about how I approach playing, and although I am barely beginning to put it into practice, it is clear that there are implications beyond the cello.  Quite possibly to everyday life, in fact....

It is hard to label the change I am trying to make, since all of the phrases that occur to me are already in use and mean other things. Bonnie and I dubbed it "effortless mastery," although it might also be called "relaxed awareness."  The former term has already been coined with relation to performance art, and is not the same as my concern.  The latter term is familiar to anyone practicing yoga asanas, and is closer.  The goal is a physical one: am I making more effort than is needed to play? Is my jaw clenched? (Usually, yes.) Are my shoulders tense? (Usually, yes.)  Obviously, some physical effort is necessary to create sound from the instrument, but I have well-entrenched habits of tension that at this point are impeding beautiful playing, which has a flow that is ... well, effortless.  The goal is to play accurately and expressively, with no hesitations, and with no more effort than is required.  Relaxed mastery, perhaps.

The focus is simply on letting go of physical tension that impedes the flow of energy.  A very dance-related concept.   The application in the studio is not as clear -- yet -- as it is in cello practice, but I do think that it exists.  The aches in my shoulders and hands after a long painting session are evidence of muscles held in tension unnecessarily, and I am intuitively sure that were I to release that tension, energy would flow more freely.  More on this in the days to come.

The image above is a current piece, 12"x12", as yet unfinished, though I think it is close.  It speaks to me of cliffs and clouds and sandstone arches.