Wednesday, August 31, 2011

a sense of place

I have spent a few days enjoying western Wisconsin, whose geography, flora, and fauna are about as different from southern Utah as can be. It is a more intimate landscape, and, to a westerner, is noticeably eastern, as in east of the continental divide. The Mississippi River is a stunning geological marker, with backriver deltas, wooded islands, and marshes abundant with birds. Low limestone cliffs define its broad valley, and vegetation is everywhere. The surrounding country consists of rolling hills created by the detritus of glacial deposits, and is also heavily wooded. The humidity in the air softens the views. Dampness predominates, as represented by the beautiful if soggy cobweb in the photo at left. The contrast of this landscape to the Southwest's long horizons, huge skies, bare rock formations, and atmospheric clarity could not be more striking.

Up close, one finds water and more water, not only in the river and it tributaries, but in morning dew, afternoon rain, dripping trees, moss, puddles.

This is Rebecca Crowell's home turf, and as I experienced it in its late summer dress, I was struck with a new understanding of her aesthetic, her palette, her style, her textures, her marks. As I pursue the expression of my own artistic ideas, I imagine that I too will develop distinctions that reflect my sense of place in my desert-mesa-canyon home. Tomorrow I begin the journey back there.

Monday, August 29, 2011

finding a way

I may be finding a way out of the middle, a way to get to completion, thanks to a presentation yesterday by Rebecca on merging form and content. Both are equally important, but perhaps one can address them differently at different stages of a painting, in a kind of dance.

Initially, I want to have the patience to build up (five? six? eight?) completely random, experimental layers before beginning to impose any kind of order on the chaos. I can use that time and those spaces to play, to improvise, to push the edges of technique, to try anything, knowing that if it fails, it will be covered up anyway and that it will inform the ultimate surface. This is a very right-brain process, "rapid, complex, whole-pattern, spatial, and perceptual" (to quote Betty Edwards in Drawing on the right side of the brain), and concentrates mainly on form.

Content during those early layers is less important, though I want to keep in the more analytic side of my mind the concept of the lower geologic layers of Capitol Reef: the chaotic Moenkopi formation, the voluptuous Shinarump, the accents of Chinle ledges, the majestic Wingate walls, the soaring Navajo domes. I want to merge form and content without imposing any order or composition in those early layers of paint, to keep in mind that any forms that might appear are to be buried, just as those lower layers of the Reef are buried.

After a certain number of lower layers are established, I can become more analytic, with more direct mental reference to cliff, mesas, canyons. It would be interesting to put down a couple of layers with an aerial reference to the land, as if looking at a map, and then to create layers that refer to the landscape as we actually see it.

This is a matter of thinking in three dimensions, in a funny sort of way.  In the actual landscape, we see the layers of the cliffs and mesas vertically, but they were created horizontally, built up layer after layer. And the layers of paint on the panel also are built up on top of one another horizontally, as it were, creating the painting as though one were creating the Reef, building it, piling up the layers on top of one another.  The “vertical” views that one sees of the Reef will been seen from this perspective only where lower layers of paint are revealed by dissolving, cutting through, or otherwise exposing them.  At the same time, however, the vertical cliff views can be rendered simply by referring to them on the painting surface, creating a portrait of them, treating the surface as if it were a cross section of all those layers, the view that we actually see. (This is where I've gotten into trouble before, because that visual image, which is the reality that we all see, becomes my composition.)  By working abstractly and addressing both approaches at the same time, I can increase the complexity and the visual richness of the work. I will never render a portrait, but by using multiple views of the land, from above and from in front, in multiple layers, I will incorporate the content into the form of the painting, and truly merge the two. I just have to have faith that the content will emerge through the form, and have the discipline and patience to let the materials create the content.

The photo above shows the five panels with which I ended the workshop.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

stuck in the middle

Mineral Point, WI 

Two days into the workshop, with several panels launched on the path to completion, I encountered the typical situation of getting stuck in the middle of the process.  In part this is a common workshop phenomenon: We are halfway through, and the excitement of beginning has morphed into the realization that hard work lies ahead. But this also happens at home, in the form of the (also) common phenomenon of getting past the initial excitement of beginning a painting and realizing that hard work lies ahead to bring it to completion.

There is almost inevitably a moment for me in the painting process when I lose my way and grind to a halt on a given piece. I may lose the original vision, I may have already gone off on a tangent of color or line­­, or I may not know how to get from where I am to where I want to be. This morning, most of my workshop panels were in that moment, and I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to proceed. It was a depressingly familiar sensation.  Then I picked up Free play again, opened it to where I had left off whenever I was last reading it, and found this before my eyes, in a section entitled “Shaping the whole”:

In producing large works ... we are perforce taking the results of many inspirations and melding them together into a flowing structure that has its own integrity and endures through time. The most ephemeral thoughts and feelings are gradually shaped into hard copy that is worked over, painted over, edited, and refined before the public sees it. This is ... where the painter covers the beginnings of the image with layer upon layer of enriching re-vision.

The muse presents raw bursts of inspiration, flashes, and improvisatory moments in which the art just flows out. But she also presents the technical, organizational job of taking what we have generated, then filing and fitting and playin­­g with the pieces until they line up. We arrange them, cook them, render them down, digest them.  We add, subtract, reframe, shift, break apart, melt together. The play of revision and editing transforms the raw into the cooked. This is a whole art unto itself, of vision and revision, playing again with the half-baked products of our prior play.

The passage could not have been more apt. It gave me a new perspective, and new insight, to where I was in the process, and what I needed to do. Suddenly my panels were not lost in a muddle but were rather the fledgling drafts of future finished pieces. And (perhaps more importantly), it wasn’t that I had lost my muse, or had failed in any other way.  Rather, it was a moment of re-vision when I could look at them anew, and "add, subtract, reframe". The idea that this portion of the process is a “whole art unto itself” suddenly gave it some dignity. I returned to our workspace with renewed energy, and made significant steps on half of my panels. The other half I decided to let dry and ship home, in order to be able to focus on fewer pieces while here. Not because I feel stuck on them any longer, but rather simply to not try to do too much.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

marks presentation

Mineral Point, WI
I have ten panels underway, far more than I can finish, but I want options. This morning I gave a small presentation about marks and mark-making to the workshop group.  Here is an outline of what I said, for the record.
Talking about marks – not the how, but the what, maybe the why -- independent of all other aspects of a painting

Why focus on marks?  I encountered marks as a challenge when I began to move away from representation, and have written about them on my [this] blog.  I was very conscious of marks when painting representationally, and find them fascinating as I move into abstraction.

Quotes – you don’t have to be an abstract artist to think about marks!
  • Dave Dornan, in a markmaking class: marks as “the language of the imperfection of the human hand” that help us “stay fascinated with ours errors and our vulnerability”
  • Mark Tansey (postmodernist), Visions and revisions:  “The game in a sense is to invent or find a tool that has a tactile resonance with the object it will be used to denote”
  • Forrest Moses, about his process:  “The path … is ongoing,  it takes constant vigilance with moving ahead and slipping back.  There is no set formula and is different for each of us.  I make marks, developing an image with a field of marks, and some I keep and some I remove and I stop before there is complete resolution.”
  • Steven Nachmanovitch, Free play: “The painter-calligrapher must treat space as though it were time.  The single-minded impulse from belly to shoulder to hand to brush to paper leaves its once-and-for-all trace, a unique moment forever frozen on paper.  The peculiarities and imperfections, which are there for all to see, are the mark of the calligrapher’s original nature.” “A blank canvas or piece of paper is ‘without form, and void’ (Genesis 1:2) but a single mark on it sets up a definite world and poses an infinite series of creative problems.”
Let’s back up to the basics: What do marks do?
  • For our purposes, they are the basic unit of visual expression: a line, a dot, a smudge, a curve
  • Marks alter the surface of the canvas
  • Marks cause eye movement; especially, linear marks create movement in a composition
  • Along with color, value, marks determine how the eye moves around the surface, and so they greatly affect how the viewer sees the painting
Some thoughts about marks
  • A continuum: marks : gesture : imagery : symbolism (things that stand for other things) : patterns : motif
  • Drawing is composed of marks; they are the visual expression of the human mind and spirit
  • Marks constitute visual thinking and interpretation of ideas
  • Symbols touch our inner understanding and subconscious knowledge
  • In a sense, every mark we make is a symbol, meaning something different from and more than what it actually is
It is through context that the meaning of a mark is interpreted, understood
  • Its pictoral, visual context
  • Its cultural context
Marks can be random or controlled, in their placement and in their creation
Marks can be rational and pre-planned, or they can be intuitive and organic

Creating a  visual and psychological vocabulary that both expresses the intention of the artist and affects the perception of the viewer
                      Sharon Wheat
                      Antoni  Tapies (see his "cracked White", 1956, above)
                      Fernando Zobel

Some exercises:
  • names written repeatedly as signature and used for mark derivation
  • designing letters of a concept word in a grid
  • draw a circle;  stand up, breathe, and draw a circle from your shoulder

Friday, August 26, 2011

getting into the paint

Mineral Point, WI

After two days of travel, meeting up with a friend and exploring Madison before coming to Mineral Point for the workshop, the first day of class today passed in a flurry of talk and painting. It was a day of settling in, of cohering as a group, finding a rhythm and a way of working together even as we each work independently. It was a time to be generous, to acknowledge each other and support each other, to get past introductions and find a level of mutual comfort. It didn't seem to take long: This is a group of very dynamic and cordial artists.

I have begun to work on several panels (probably too many), trying to focus on creating foundations rather than finished paintings.  I plan to continue to build base layers tomorrow, even if it means that I can't finish pieces before going home. I don't have anything specific in mind, although I still hope to address my dilemma of how to portray the land that I love.  Still, I like the idea of a series of rather random foundation layers, on top of which to build something more coherent.  Rebecca gave us a list of optional exercises on color, and I immediately adopted her "Random" idea: to close my eyes and pick up two tubes of paint at random, and use whatever they are for whatever layer I am working on.

I'll come back and edit this post to add an image of today's work, once I get the images out of my camera.  I forgot the cord!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

musings and plans

After letting it sit for several months, I finally have delved into Stephen Nachmanovitch's book Free play: Improvisation in life and art.  I have underlined so many passages in the book that I need to index them (fortunately, my Kindle does so for me). With reference to my post-birthday post, the following was particularly apt:

       The creative process is a spiritual path. This adventure is about us, about the deep self,
       the composer in all of us, about originality, meaning not that which is all new, but that
       which is fully and originally ourselves.

Nachmanovitch writes from the perspective of a violinist and writer, with frequent reference to the other fine arts. One reason that I have underlined so much is that when he isn't speaking to the painter in me, he is speaking to the cellist. (For example, "Artists play with color and space. Musicians play with sound and silence.")  And, indeed, his remarks center on the characteristics of improvisation, independent of the art form.  There is much to muse on here.

Part of the reason for reading Free play now is that it helps me focus on artistic issues that I want to address at the Oil & Cold Wax workshop in Wisconsin.  I am now in Salt Lake, staying overnight before boarding a morning flight to Madison. I have been looking forward to this workshop for months.  It is a "Level 2" presented by Rebecca Crowell, for artists who have attended her introductory workshop, which I did last year in Longmont, CO.  We will continue to explore oil and cold wax, and I will have several days of contact not only with Rebecca but with other artists who attend.

Because opportunities like this workshop are so rare, I wanted to get my thoughts in order, if possible, before it begins. Hence the last few posts, and Free play.  I also wanted to identify what I want to get out of the workshop (while still allowing for surprise and serendipity), and to address once again what I want to accomplish in my painting. I know that I have talked about it all before, in one way or another, but I hope to move the conversation ahead. My plan (such as it is) for the workshop is to try to stay focused on the issues that I have identified, and to try to paint in a disciplined yet spontaneous way, to try to break through the barriers that seem to have hemmed me in. I want to focus on using all I know about oil and cold wax materials and techniques to address the subject matter that means the most to me, which is the land that surrounds me in southern Utah.

There is one last dilemma that I have never openly addressed, one that is surely shared by other students of Rebecca's: many of us are studying Oil & Cold Wax with her simply because we want to paint like her. Yet we don't want to imitate her.  Rather, we want to find our voices, as she has, through the same medium.  So, this brings back me to The Question: Just how, exactly, am I going to use this medium and these techniques to express my own voice?  What a silly question, now that it is asked. I have my palette and I have my passion for the land,  and I even have some of my own techniques.  I just need to hunker down and add the things I learn from Rebecca to that, without fear of being imitative.  Because I won't be, because I don't want to say the same things that she does.  My hope for the days in Wisconsin is that I will realize how to pull it all together and will begin do so.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

coming together

In the last post (May 23d) before teaching the high school class, I ended with the remark that my fundamentals, as I have defined them, seem to be abstract design, color, and marks, and that "it is time I tied them to my inner vision of what I want to express."

I now think, after a few weeks' hiatus, that I have been separating these questions too much from those of my subject matter, and that I really do need to bring the two sides of my painting together.  It makes sense to consider design, color, and marks within the parameters of what I want to paint about. If my passion is to portray my reaction, emotion, ideas about the land around me, it makes sense to marry that with the elements that I choose to use.  I have written about this before, with reference to Rebecca Crowell's "Form and Content" distinction, and really all I am doing here is recording that this is something that I hope to address actively during this weekend's workshop in Wisconsin.  More later.

Above is a recent, hasty, non-abstract, cold wax 20"x20" painting that I obliterated the next day with a layer of cobalt blue.

Friday, August 19, 2011

a thousand thoughts

Eleven quietly eventful weeks have passed since I last wrote. The gap reflects a period of a lot of activity, some of which has been typical summer busy-ness: house guests, fishing trips, gardening, community festivals. It also has been an active time artistically. I have been painting regularly, and have continued to explore not only the cold wax medium but also what I want to say with it. And I made some fundamental changes in the mechanics of my cello playing, and have discovered new levels of expression as a result.

On another, more internal, level, some changes have happened and are still happening that I sense will have an effect on my painting. I am meditating regularly, exploring awareness, and this brings with it a sense of peace and inner unity. I have had deeper and more substantive conversations with friends and acquaintances than I can remember having before. I have found new friendships. I have a new awareness of my own values, and I've lost some old fears. Nothing dramatic, just an interesting progression of new aspects of life.

In addition, I turned 60 yesterday. Age has never meant much to me, but the number 60 is such a singular number, and so much has been happening in my life, that the day almost seems to be some kind of marker. Four days from now, I leave for a week of concentrated cold wax work in Wisconsin, and opportunity beckons. As always during such times of growth, the impulse to record it in words has returned, and I am grateful for this space in which to explore it all.

The painting above, "Sandstone Pathways", 20" x 20", was the result of a lengthy and fairly thoughtful process and now hangs in Gallery 24. I like the painting, objectively speaking, but it is not what I want to paint about. I am tired of futzing around and being afraid of addressing cliffs;  I think it is time to take the next painting step.