Sunday, September 18, 2011

subdividing the concept

Thanks to my notes and Rebecca's handouts from the workshop in Mineral Point, plus several sessions of just sitting and contemplating my works-in-progress in the studio, I begin to see a next step in this journey of mine. It is to move beyond -- or, rather, into -- my concept of the landscape and geology of the Colorado Plateau and Capitol Reef. To subdivide it, as it were -- after all, no one painting could possibly capture it all anyway --  and look at each painting as an expression of some aspect of this place. At the same time, I'd like this subdivision of the big picture to move away from the pictorial into the conceptual. The "some aspect" that I address should be not river but space, not cliff but solitude. That is, I should shift the focus and respond to each painting in terms of what it is beginning to say, conceptually or emotionally, rather than what it is beginning to look like. This is the point at which to get away from form and into conceptual content. This follows an idea described by Rebecca in her talk about visual thinking (where conscious thought and intuitive response meet); it also follows a precept from David Dornan all those years ago: to tell a story, to paint human emotions.

So: after initial random splotches to mess up the bare gesso, and a few layers of contrasting colors and random textures and marks, and a few more layers inspired by an aerial or landscape composition, enough paint will be mindfully built up that I can begin to move to a conclusion that brings the painting together to say something. At this point, with reference once again to Free Play, I want to create not with form and technique but through them, using them to express some meaningful idea in an abstract way. What that will be, I still don't know, but that is my next task with my current set of close-to-finished pieces.

This whole train of thought was triggered in part by my signing and titling the one painting that was essentially completed in Mineral Point. Storm, Bryce Canyon, above, was never deliberately intended to be anything specific, but as I look at it, that title is my verbal response to it. It evokes feeling of the chaos and uneasiness of that area southwest from here, which is subjected to some of the harshest weather in the region.

Friday, September 16, 2011

moving along

I have had an energetic and productive week in the studio, augmented by helping a friend evaluate her progress in watercolor painting. I have no great results to report, however; I seem to be muddling along, though I sense that I am moving forward.

The main reason for this post is to make a visual record of the latest iteration of the three panels that I mentioned earlier in the week. "Houses" has become "Goosenecks" (at left) after an aerial photo of the famous gooseneck curves on the San Juan river inspired a few new layers. It now presents a stuck-in-the-middle challenge: it has quite a bit of paint built up, and I'm not sure where to take it. I am tempted to mess it up, but it seems to be too far along to add much more paint. I like where it is, but where is it going? I'm not painting the Goosenecks, I am painting ... what?
 "Zen" has received some added marks, plus some transparent layers. I also felt the need to add a structural note through a stripe down its left side. Like "Goosenecks", I'm not sure where to take this next. Again, I like what is happening, but I'm not sure where it should go. My thoughts from last month about getting unstuck from the middle should be helpful here, and I think my next activity will be to return to my notes from Wisconsin and step back from painting for a day or two.

Finally, "Wingate" (below) has morphed into "Trees", since I turned it sideways and impulsively added some copper leaf dancing across the top. Like the other two pieces, this is fun, but not finished.  Where do I go now? Hah!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

refining the concept

Three panels in the studio are clamoring for attention:  "Houses" and ""Zen"(both mentioned in previous posts), plus "Wingate", one of the pieces I began at the Mineral Point workshop.  All the workshop pieces arrived safely last Thursday, and have joined the many other panels on my studio walls. The near chaos of having so many pieces on display prompted me to rearrange and clean the studio, so that even though there are still too many panels around, the small ones are tucked behind the door, and the larger pieces are those that I see when I walk in.
Although I haven't been working exactly systematically since getting home from Wisconsin, I have been consistently pursuing the vision that I conceived there of rendering the country in which I live by abstracting the geologic processes and formations using cold wax techniques. A day away from the studio yesterday led to me waking up early this morning with that vision on my mind, and multiple ideas of things to try. This is what happened every day during the trip, and I welcomed the renewed focus.
All three of these pieces are currently in that "middle" zone of having developed in interesting ways but still lacking any sense of completion. It is time for re-vision work on all of them, and the pre-dawn clarity of the early morning brought inspiration for each. The first two have had a couple of layers of "aerial" treatment, with patterns and textures inspired by photos and maps. "Wingate" is one step further along, with some initial portrayal of layers of rock as we see them (the image above is the piece as it currently exists). All three are the result of the process I conceived in Mineral Point, and are confirmations of it. In each, initial random chaotic layers gave way to loose compositions based on actual aerial views provided by maps and photos, and are now ready for revision into "portrait" views of the layers of Capitol Reef.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

aerial perspective

This morning for the first time I tried using aerial photographs for compositional inspiration. I have an old file of photos cut from various magazines that chronicle the Colorado Plateau and its many formations. I have occasionally wondered why I was collecting these, but they are exactly what I am looking for now. They have, of course, been themselves composed by their creators, but I don't use them literally. Rather, some aspect provides an impetus for a mark or a gesture. Each photo that I used this morning spoke to me in one way or another, as portrayals of this stunning landscape and the geology that created it. And each provided many possibilities for gesture, whether it was the curve of a river, the outline of a mesa, or the step-like ledges of a cliffside.

The composition seen here is based on a close-up photo of a sandstone formation, carved by the wind into graceful ridges and ravines. I like the almost Zen-like mood that resulted. This is the fourth or fifth layer on the panel, and I am thinking that, rather than just cover it up with something different, I will let the feel of it guide me with later layers. The challenge will be not to let it get "precious" and feel that I can't change it.  Still, it has such a lovely flow that it may just carry itself along to completion.

Monday, September 5, 2011

layer revisions

One of the realizations that I had during the workshop in Wisconsin last week was that each layer of a given panel should be created as though it were the final layer. That is, each should be a complete composition, rendered with care and worked (revised, as in Free play) until it stands on its own, at least as a complete thought. In the couple of days that I have been home, I've gotten out to the studio to revisit this summer's partially worked panels that are hanging on the walls.  (My panels from Mineral Point are on their way home via UPS.) Most have only a couple of lower layers on them, which are not nearly random enough, having been worked too hard as cliff references. So I have spent happy hours messing them up, but with attention and care.  The image here is the current iteration of Houses (see my post of August 21st).

Next will come the harder work of settling into the layers of reference to aerial and landscape conceptions of the land here.  I've collected a couple of topo maps and some aerial photographs for inspiration. I also plan to do some plein air painting with cold wax as the medium, emphasizing matching paint color with what I see, in order to develop some samples of local color reference. It will also be a good exercise in abstract composition, since I intend to deliberately not render actual landscapes. Both aspects of the plein air work will, I hope, nourish the abstract work in studio.

Another step I have taken since arriving home from Wisconsin is to schedule actual blocks of studio time on my calendar. Now, instead of thinking, "I hope I can get out to the studio today," I can see that I will spend the afternoon there. My friend Phyllis Lasche suggested this, and I can already see that it is a great idea. (Thanks, Phyllis!)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

more coincidences

Driving home from the Salt Lake City airport last night, I was treated to a radio interview from 2004 with Doug Snow, a well-known Utah artist and professor who retired to the Torrey/Capitol Reef area and lived about five miles from my home. Doug died in a car accident two years ago, at age 82. I knew him, though not as well as I would have liked, and I shared a few conversations about art with him. A retrospective of his work just opened in Salt Lake City, hence the re-broadcast of the interview.

To hear Doug's voice and words while driving (somewhat wearily) home from the Wisconsin trip at first seemed to be a delightful coincidence. But soon the content of his remarks resonated so deeply that they seemed to be an end-note to the experience of this past week, another serendipitous occurrence of the muse's message.

Doug was deeply tied to the land here, and often cited the Cockscomb, a local geological landmark, as his muse. His paintings often referenced it (the image above is of his Cockscomb near Teasdale, 1985), and usually elicited strong reactions from viewers. In the interview, Doug spoke about the many artists who come to this area to render the landscape. From his perspective, most results lack something, because they don't convey emotion. He said, "“the landscape down here can be anything you want it to be,” that it “helps you to express whoever or whatever you feel that you are at that time.”

Doug believed that the role of the artist is to use the tools of the trade to translate one's own thoughts and feelings into art.  Rather than simply paint what you see (which, Doug said, is usually what has already been painted), “I think it’s great to take on stuff…without any preconceptions, just let it do something, let it bring something out of you, and then take that, using the landscape as a reference.” The landscape itself can have a profound influence, but the artist should still try to find his- or herself in the material. 

Finally, he spoke about curiosity being key to the process, because it leads to the unexpected and to surprise. “If I begin a painting, and I’m not surprised at the result, then all I've done is illustrate some vague idea I had in the first place.” “Improvisation plays a powerful role in what I do.  When in doubt, I improvise, and out of that comes something I can grab hold of and intensify, that becomes the finished product.” I felt as though he were speaking directly to me, reinforcing my recent realization that my aim is to portray not just the land itself but my feelings about it, and to let improvisation occur.