Sunday, October 28, 2012

informed progress

I am reading a book about the formation of the Colorado Plateau from the earliest times when the earth's crust was still forming. Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau is written and illustrated by geologists, but is eminently accessible, and fascinating. In addition to clear textual descriptions of geological history, computer-generated maps show the succession of landscapes that probably existed as continents collided, oceans inundated, landforms lifted, and mountains eroded. The witnesses to this history are the very layers of rock that I see on a daily basis. My understanding of this land in which I live deepens with every chapter that I read. What a pleasure.

The benefits extend to the studio. My current concept of building a painting the way that the Plateau was built becomes vastly more meaningful as my knowledge of current geologic theory expands. In practical terms, it increases my visual vocabulary as I contemplate what to do with a given layer on a given painting. The image here is of a new layer on yesterday's cliffscape (see the previous post). In my mind was the early phase of continental formation and convergence in the primordial ocean. Its portrayal required finding a new way of putting down and blending the paint, because I had a specific effect in mind. I wanted to suggest isolated splotches of earth roaming in a vast ocean. I worked intuitively and experimentally, and I am pleased with the results. This is not the final layer, but it holds a meaning that is deeper and richer than the rather artificial geometric portrayal of a cliff face that I created yesterday. On the other hand, yesterday's layer provided a structure upon which to hang this more amorphous composition. Each layer informs the next. This is the way I had hoped to work when I first conceived of literally using the land around me to inform my painting. I am encouraged!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

enjoying the routine

Inspired by my friend Phyllis Lasché, who shared with me her methods of time management and goal setting, I seem to have found a way to keep myself showing up in the studio on a daily basis and also making forward progress on myriad tasks and projects associated with my art. For the past two weeks, I have put in two to three hours a day at the easel and also have worked on various other projects: a new database for cataloging my work, learning to use new materials, keeping in touch with other cold wax artists. It is a comfortable schedule, one I can see extending easily into the months to come.

It is the regular time in the studio that is at the core of this, of course. I set myself a minimum of an hour a day ("just an hour"), which is always do-able and not onerous. I've used this method before, for cello practice ("just fifteen minutes"), and I know it is purely a psychological trick, but it works for me. More importantly, I give that hour priority over other activities in the day. It has become routine to head out after breakfast and get to work. Just as the fifteen minutes at the cello usually expands to an hour, so the hour in the studio tends to expand until lunchtime.

One big advantage of consistently showing up -- in addition to the simple fact that I paint -- is that painting stays in my consciousness pretty much all the time, even when I am away from the studio. The big questions (what is abstraction? what do I want to say?) meet the practical ones (how do I reference a cliff without painting one? how do I express joy through color?) on a constant basis, and I can almost sense the wheels turning in my head even while watching a baseball game on television (not a frequent event, but the SF Giants are in the World Series!).

I also find that since I am painting frequently and regularly, I am more willing to experiment and to take risks. If I have an idea, I feel freer to follow it, perhaps because I have a sense of more time available to do so. One example is shown above. This was a completely abstract painting with five or six layers of varying color and theme. I didn't have any plans for it, and I was curious whether I could produce in cold wax a painting like one of my old favorites, "Hidden Chambers", from 2008 (an image of it is included with the first post of this blog). So I pulled out my colors and my spreaders, and had a go. I wasn't satisfied when I finished the layer this morning, though the image above looks all right. Perhaps, despite my love of the 2008 version, my vision has changed away from that moment. I don't know what is next, perhaps a layer partially obscuring this one. But because I know I will be out in the studio, working, tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, the tension is diffused and I feel free to explore additional possibilities. There is time.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

design decisions

I have several pieces close to being finished. I want to push through and complete them, but in a thoughtful and deliberate way. The piece at left, 20" x  24", is one candidate. Although it looks chaotic at the moment, it has several diverse layers of paint already built up. My instinct is to cover up the detail with a few large color fields, to calm down the surface. But I don't really see what to do next.

What do I want my top layers to look like? I have settled on a process for getting to the finishing stage, through the building up of layer after layer of color and theme. But I realized this morning that I don't really know what it is that I want on that top layer, the layer that everyone sees when they first look at the painting.

When I review my previous work, even going back to 2005 when I began to explore abstraction, the vast majority of pieces that I like are landscape-oriented with a strong horizon line -- or, in my "cliff" series, a strong horizontal ledge-line -- from side to side. I think that this reflects one set of qualities that I want to express in my work: that of stability, or calmness, or quiet. Another characteristic that dominates is that of color: Very few pastel or muted palettes are present, and the few paintings that are somewhat neutral in hue frequently have notes of saturated color. I have tried at times to paint monochromatic and/or pale pieces, but they have seldom been satisfactory to me.

In my latest artist's statement (see previous post), I don't address what I want a finished painting to look like, or what I want the viewer to experience. So that isn't much help. But I do make it pretty clear that my paintings are about the land. It would be reasonable to have the final surface clearly reference that. Another resource is my list of "concepts" (see post for August 21st). Surely any finished piece should show evidence of some of them.

If I imagine walking into a room exhibiting my work, I want each piece to catch the eye in some way. I go back to the two qualities that jumped out when I looked at my past work: a strong horizontal line, and color. I have been feeling as though I should avoid horizontal, edge-to-edge lines, since they immediately announce "landscape", and I have interpreted "going abstract" as avoiding that. But, fact is, the land is my subject, and one way to indicate that in a painting is to reference "landscape". So perhaps horizon lines are okay, at least for now. And I think color is here to stay as a salient characteristic. More to come.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

a new artist's statement

It took three tries and even more drafts, but I have settled on a new artist's statement.  It may never see the light of day, but I have posted it in my studio, and if nothing else it serves to keep me on track. If I were asked to make a statement about my current work, this is what I would say:

I am fascinated by the relationship between time and the earth. Time builds up and then erodes the land; the land resists and then acquiesces. These transformations reflect creative forces beyond the scope of human endeavor. My passion is to try to convey the spirit and beauty of this dynamic, and to share the feelings of timelessness and wonder that it inspires in me. I view my paintings as doorways through time, interpretations of the past as revealed by the land.

My painting practice echoes these natural processes. I use oil paint and cold wax medium to establish successive layers of abstract composition, each of which interprets a theme suggested by time and the land. A given layer might be about fossils, or rivers, or wind. I choose colors, textures, and shapes that complement the theme: the blues of the sky, the roughness of stone, the intricacy of a shrimp skeleton. The layers build up the way the land builds up, and they also are eroded, the way land is eroded, through dissolving or abrading. In the end, the parts come together as a whole, but always with the subtleties and mysteries of the hidden layers supporting and deepening the finished surface.

Painting for me is a way of renewing and exploring my connection to and feeling for the land. I am naturally drawn to abstraction, and I have a love for experimentation, both of which are supported by the materials and the methods that I use. The subject that I address is vast, and is a challenge in itself. Finding a way to express my responses to it in tangible form presents opportunities for curiosity and exploration that are equally unending.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

getting home

We have been home from Spain for ten days, seven of which passed by as I dealt with worse-than-usual jetlag. My activities were mostly limited to settling into domestic rhythms and patterns, and any effort to focus on either painting or cello were fruitless; my mind just would not engage. Finally, last Friday, I began to feel fully normal, mentally and physically.

Although I didn't break out the paints during that week, I did address other studio-related issues, mostly thanks to my now weekly (or so) telephone conversation with Phyllis. We are both still working on artist's statements, and are reporting in and getting feedback from each other. Discussing why we paint and what we want to accomplish naturally leads to talking about more specific matters, such as what is happening in the studio and on the canvas. After years of isolation in daily work, with outside contact only at occasional workshops, the opportunity to talk with another artist and friend on a regular basis is a godsend to me. It helps immensely to verbalize my thoughts to another person, and Phyllis is skilled at giving useful feedback. Doing the same for her also helps me, opening up new areas of thought and new topics for consideration.

As a result, even though I have only been back at the easel for three days, the time before that produced a series of decisions about goals and their achievement, some organization of time and activities, and actual progress in some of my off-easel projects, such as getting my cataloging process under way again, revising my website, and continuing to read and research areas of interest relevant to my artwork.

Administrative work is part of being an artist, yet I have frequently ignored it because I felt that I should be spending the time in the studio, painting. This new clarity about priorities and a sensible approach to them is allowing me to address the issues and tasks more rationally. Three days ago, I broke out the paints and got to work again, without my usual sense of time wasted. Perhaps as a reward, a client purchased three paintings of mine from Gallery 24 on Saturday -- the last day of the 2012 season! The image above is of Paredes Viejas, 16"x 16", one of the pieces that found a home this weekend.