Friday, November 30, 2012

taking inspiration

Back when being an artist was just a dream, I worked my way through Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way not once, but twice. One of the ideas in the book that has always stuck with me is the concept of the artist's date. This is the gift to oneself of an hour, an afternoon, a day, pursuing some activity that feeds the creative soul. A museum, a movie, an art supply store, a class, a lecture, a walk in the woods -- whatever form it takes, the idea is to have a time away from production, doing something nurturing and fun.

Living in Torrey, museums and art supply stores are in scant supply, but services such as Netflix are readily available. The website's search feature allows keywords, such as artist names, to be entered in pursuit of interesting films and short features. Such an exploration produced the 2011 film Gerhard Richter Painting, which I watched last night.

This film on the 80-year-old artist is a treasure for anyone interested in art to see, but it is especially relevant and resonant for cold wax painters because it shows Richter at work, applying paint to huge canvases, moving it around, scraping it off (with fascinating huge acrylic scrapers), painting over, editing, adding, revising, never really sure it is done -- in short, at least for me, many of the same processes and dynamics that I go through, if on a smaller scale. And many of his remarks ring true, for example in explaining the principal hue of a first layer of paint laid down: "The plan is for green. That is why there is so much red."

My choice on Netflix of Gerhard Richter Painting was happenstance; I had not heard of it and knew nothing about it (and not much about Richter). So it was a delightful surprise. I kept the film in my "active" queue of Netflix choices, and look forward to watching it again, when the absence of surprise will allow for a deeper reading. For me, it provided inspiration and moral support, to see such an accomplished artist at work, hear his thoughts about his creative world, and so strongly identify with both.

The image above is Richter's "Abstraktes Bild" ("Abstract Painting"), 45" x 28", 2005, Catalogue RaisonnĂ© 891-3, found on his most informative website.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

never satisfied

I have completed four pieces since my post of November 10th, and have been very happy about them. (The image at left, as yet unnamed, is one of them, 9" x 11".) In each case, I had built up layers somewhat at random, using hues that either contrasted or complemented lower layers, and always having in mind a concept. That is, I had followed the process that I have written about in earlier posts this fall. For the top layers, following my own advice, I sought to identify techniques that would produce a pleasing visual surface. And my main concern as I worked has been at that level: How to create subtlety, how to soften edges, when to soften edges, what value contrasts to establish, and so on. In other words, my concerns have been with techniques and visual effects. It has been a very focused time, as I have tried to establish a kind of toolbox of options that create the effects that I want. I have worked intuitively, allowing what is happening on the surface to guide me. All well and good. I have another five or six pieces ready to be completed, and I gain confidence with each one. My attitude is changing from, "oh no, will I ruin this?" to curiosity and anticipation about what will happen as I move paint around.

As the techniques become more natural to me, though, and as I begin to develop a sense of mastery over this stage of the painting process, doubts begin to arise. Are the pieces too much alike? Is it becoming too easy, so that they become trivial? Are they too abstract? Are they too representational? And so on. So far, when I stop to seriously consider one of these doubts, it is easily put to rest, either as untrue, or as something that I can easily change. For example, three of the four finished pieces have a similar final composition, with darker hues at bottom, lighter hues at top, and a patina of white blended across the whole surface, as in the image above. Are they too much alike? Or is this consistency? In either case, I just need to avoid making it a pattern that I always follow. It has been a means to achieving the end of developing a set of techniques, but it it is time to vary the pattern. So, I'll break out of it on the next piece.

Nonetheless, uneasiness remains. I realized this morning that my doubts are actually related to the fact that, for these four pieces, I did not have in mind a guiding concept as I worked on that top surface. As I become more confident in the how of the finished layer, I need to plug in the why. Happily, I talked about this in the post of November 10:
When I get to a final layer... I am not satisfied anymore with portraying things. I bury the fossils and the riverbeds; they are not something I want on top. Instead, I want to present something that is more amorphous -- that is, I suppose, more of a mood or an emotion. An impression. A mystery to be pondered. And yet, I want it to refer... to the constructs embodied underneath, and to my overlying theme of the geology of the land. 
This means that, rather than choosing colors at random based on their relationship to the hues underneath, I need to choose a mood or message, and also relate the color and value choices to that. Similarly with the composition: quiet or active, organic or mechanical, calming or exciting, depending on what I want to say. My next challenge, then, as I continue to focus on getting to finished, is to return to the meaning of what I am creating, and let it guide which tools I choose to use from my expanding collection.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

being in public

For reasons I still do not know, I was invited to submit a small painting to a small exhibit, “Honoring Utah Artists”, in a small gallery in Salt Lake City. The only requirement was that the size be smaller than 16” x 20”. Some fifty artists were to be represented, one painting each. There seemed to be no reason not to participate, and so I sent in a small painting that I completed last year, named “Hope” (16" x 8", left).

The exhibit opened last night, and Jerome and I combined the event with a trip to the city for shopping and a dinner out. The gallery/framing shop is small but nicely appointed, and the show is nicely hung. Most of the other artists are from the northern part of the state, although at least one is from Moab, a couple of hours east of Torrey. I recognize the names of three other painters whose pieces are included, but then I am not acquainted with many other artists, living as far from the urban center as I do. Perhaps a dozen of the participants were present at the opening. It was a pleasant event, and a few of my non-artist friends showed up. All in all, it is a small show but nicely done, and I am pleased to have been included.

Even more interesting to me, though, was my reaction to the whole situation, from receipt of the initial invitation through the opening last night. Or perhaps it is my lack of reaction that I find interesting, because I really sort of took it all in stride. I was not particularly excited, but neither was I nervous. Only a few years ago I would have experienced both of these emotions. I would have been really jazzed to receive any invitation to be in a show, and one in Salt Lake would have sent me into a tizzy. I would have agonized over what painting was good enough to submit. And I would have been nervous that my piece would not be up to snuff, that it would look awful next to all the others, even that the gallery would send it back and say, sorry, it won't do.

Instead, I was relaxed about the whole thing. The excitement of the invitation was mitigated by the small size of both the gallery and the show itself. I only had three completed paintings that fit the size restriction, so there was no point in agonizing over what to submit. I chose one that had always been a favorite. And I knew that I would be the only cold wax painting, so that there could be no nasty comparisons with other similar styles.

But I think it is more than just that. I think that I am painting so deeply and so passionately these days that I don't have room, as it were, for nerves. Viewers might not like my paintings -- there are all kinds of tastes in the world -- but I do, and I find beauty in them, and I am not afraid to show them and even explain what they are about. This is new, though it dates from the very first cold wax paintings that I began to produce two-and-a-half years ago. The fact that I have sold several paintings recently also helps!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

getting onto the surface

Several weeks of attention to building up the lower layers of paintings, concentrating on themes, colors, and textures, have produced five or six pieces that beg for completion. I've written about the topic of "getting to finished" before, since it is a problem for me. I can easily ruin a painting by trying to force it to finality. At the other end of the spectrum, Rebecca advocates letting the final surface emerge on its own. I am uncomfortable with the amorphous quality of my results when I try this, although I understand the idea. It is essentially the opposite of forcing.

As I consider the paintings on my studio wall that are crying "finish me", I am wondering if there is a middle ground here, a set of techniques that lend themselves to the final layers and a set of concepts that similarly are more suited to the final surface than others. Certainly the creative focus is different from that of earlier layers. Although I always bring even the lowest layer to a point that is compositionally pleasing, it is seldom a layer that has a public face -- that is, that I would present to the public as a finished piece. Instead, I experiment, frequently trying out ideas that might work on a final layer, but without the burden. I focus on thinking about a theme, and on establishing colors and marks that work well with the layer(s) below. I have found that the themes that I most frequently address on these lower layers are objective (in the sense of being things): rivers, plants, fossils, rocks.

When I get to a final layer, I realized today, I am not satisfied anymore with portraying things. I bury the fossils and the riverbeds; they are not something I want on top. Instead, I want to present something that is more amorphous -- that is, I suppose, more of a mood or an emotion. An impression. A mystery to be pondered. And yet, I want it to refer, at least in my mind, to the constructs embodied underneath, and to my overlying theme (no pun intended) of the geology of the land. That geology contains structure, and I want some visual structure on which to hang the mood.

These final layers, then, request a different approach from the lower history. I want them to be subtle, to be finely tuned, to cause curiosity and response. I have worked a lot on the top layers of two or three pieces in the past few days, and I find that there is probably a subset of techniques that lend themselves to this phase of the painting where others don't. If the lower layers create texture and depth, sometimes with great color contrasts, the upper layers pull out that texture from below but are themselves smoother, and similarly may reveal, or refer down to, the color below but are themselves more harmonious. If the division of space on the hidden layers is accidental, or experimental, or nonexistent, the compositional division of the visual layers must be, to my mind, deliberate.

The image above is of a 24"x 24" painting in its final stages; the process by which I added the last few layers gave rise to the musings here.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

the joy of loss

I spent a happy hour this morning scraping down about a dozen paintings. Each has several layers of paint built up, but otherwise they comprise a diverse group. I was perfectly happy with some of them; others seemed perhaps overwrought, perhaps nondescript. But today I was nondiscriminatory, and with the aid of a 6-inch-wide metal scraper, I ran roughshod over all surfaces.

The results were refreshing. If there was a lot of texture, the scraper sliced it down, revealing lower layers -- yet these still remain hidden in the valleys between the former ridges. Kind of like taking off mountain-tops. If the texture was modest, but still rose above the top layer of paint, whispers of color would show through from underneath. And even if the top layer was almost completely flat with seemingly no texture, the scraper wore it down a bit, producing a lovely look of weathering and age, hinting at history. There was not a single painting that did not benefit.

The "loss" was of course partly literal: paint came off in strips and crumbs and, from the driest pieces, as dust. But in many cases the paintings also lost either a preciousness or a gridlock that had prevented progress. Some I had become afraid to touch, because I feared covering up an effect that I liked. Gentle scraping left the effect present, but lent it a depth and interest by hinting at what lies underneath. In a few instances, such as the piece shown above, the latest layer was thick and opaque and had not produced a felicitous effect. Scraping it down brought out marks and hues from underneath, livened up the surface, and got rid of a lot of too-thick paint. In every case, I looked at the piece afterward with new eyes, seeing new possibilities and visual freshness and interest.

Part of why I am so pleased is that I have long been drawn to both the concept of weathering in relation to my muse of the geological landscape and the look of weathering in other people's work as well as my own. I have scraped back before, and the process has helped produce some of my favorite paintings. In terms of other artists, Marcia Myers' "frescos" painted on linen are among my favorite works, and weathering is certainly part of her look. And Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series, one of my all-time sources of inspiration, present the same characteristic.

Perhaps a final reason that I am pleased with this work today is that I have always meant to explore scraping back in a systematic and consistent fashion. Because I had several pieces with which to work, I could experiment with the effects of variables such as the type of scraper and the relative dryness of the paint. As a result, I now feel both more comfortable with the process and more aware of its potential. And I like the effect: In addition to the weathered appearance, the treatment adds an air of refinement (for lack of a better word) to the surfaces.