Recently I’ve returned to making paintings using the structures of opulent, historic European architectural spaces. Originally designed as theatrical displays of status by wealthy aristocrats and bourgeoisie, these sites provide entertainment, fantasy and pleasure for touristic consumption. As painter I can immerse myself in a haptic exploration of deep space that satisfies the former dancer in me, while not being precious about methods of representation.
Although I use photography as a structural device through which I enter the painting process, what has always interested me is finding ways to break free from the tyranny of the image. I always come to a point of crisis where I must partly destroying the image in order to discover fresh solutions to painterly problems I set for myself.
Throughout my childhood and into my mid-twenties, I was a ballet dancer. That intense training of spatial awareness and interpretive questioning is still deeply stamped in my DNA. A painting to me is a kind of choreography; there’s a haptic dance that takes place from my optical experience of an image, through to the way my nervous system signals to my body how to translate and record it. As painter/dancer I tease out meaning through working and reworking, coming up to speed as I gain understanding, and making the last strikes with absolute commitment.
Now that the cooler weather of Fall is here, I’m so grateful to be able to get back into the studio and paint paint paint. A little study I made last winter of a scene on my breakfast table has been calling to me. I painted it on an old envelope.
The appearance of objects, and their quiet presence or “itness”, has long been something that really gets to me. I wasn’t sure about this humble image, but after much deliberation I decided there’s something about it I need to pay attention to.
So here’s a painting I made this week:
And I started another one:
For the next several months all I want to do is immerse myself in the wordless process of looking, and recording what I see. I’ve been tussling with a purist notion that I must work only from life; but the practicality of it has not been easy to deal with. The dimensions of my apartment limit me from painting there with an easel; a way around it could have been working very small, but to be honest I get very claustrophobic with all my painting gear cluttering up the place. My home is a sanctuary, where I can rest. So the solution is of course
This past year of working off and on from life has really helped me. Observing how light changes in a space over time informs how I now see colour, and I realize I have more freedom to mess around with what goes on in the rectangle. At the same time my drawing is getting better.
And my Ipad and Iphone now have those updated apps that have much better options for image correction.
You can see I’ve put grid marks on the canvas above. Having watched Antonio Garcia Lopez paint in the film El Sol del Mebrillo by Victor Erice I realized that within extreme control (measuring), one can then have great freedom (painterly interpretation). But Garcia doesn’t like working from photography. I’m okay with acknowledging I live in the 21st century and can use any technology I want, as did Bonnard, Vuillard, Degas, and those guys who probably used the camera obscura (Vermeer, Caravaggio). However, so far I’m not interested in actually projecting and tracing. I like drawing too much, and I feel like something interesting happens when I get things slightly wrong even though I’m trying to get it right.
The past two weeks have been super interesting. I’ve been making a painting on-site in my local art store, Opus, on Granville Island. The staff there have been great in welcoming me as I test out painting live in a public space, to learn how the experience might affect my painting practice. Standing on a platform in the paper and sketch-book section affords me a high-angle view of the space, where I can get a bit of distance and a dynamic perspective of the aisles and shelving.
What interests me about this part of the store are the rhythmic patterns of different colored papers as they recede in space, and the wonderful childrens’ paintings hanging on the back wall below the managers’ office windows. I always find it interesting making paintings of paintings.
For quite some time now I’ve been wanting to act on the strong compulsion to be in the world as I render it; in contrast to the isolation of the studio and working from the flattened image of a photograph, I’m finding the immediacy of painting from direct observation to be incredibly energizing and challenging. And I’ve always loved a challenge!
The occasional conversations with interested passers-by is a welcome break from the focused intensity required to do the work outside of my comfort zone; and the happenstance chats with Opus staff throughout the day have enriched the experience––most of the people working there are artists themselves, so it’s lovely to hear a bit about their backgrounds, and share conversation about creativity, the value of time, some nuggets about the history of Granville Island, and how this month’s friendly goal-setting challenge of “28 days of art practice” has been helpful in encouraging them to draw or make something every day. The wall at the entrance to the store is gradually filling up with wonderful little drawings made over the past two weeks.
This new way of working has been a bit of a learning curve: the first week I painted four days in a row, then worked on another project and did some teaching on the weekend. The second week I painted three days, and by the fourth day I realized how challenging this process has been on my energies.
The heightened stimulation of this new painting situation, which in a way is a kind of performance, means I have to monitor how it’s affecting my physical well-being. On Wednesday night I slept twelve hours, and I then took it easy Thursday. I visited the store only in the afternoon to show the painting to a couple of artist friends, but didn’t paint that day. I’m learning that the time between painting is important, to recharge, think about the work and where it’s going, and what might come next.
I came across a quote by Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu on “Brain Pickings”, one of my favorite blogs about the creative process by the excellent Maria Popova. I think it speaks volumes about the importance of enjoying the process, without attachment to outcomes.
Certainly in painting, I find that the best work comes when I’m relaxed and curious, rather than trying to make something that I think someone would like. First of all, I have to enjoy what I’m doing, and then I need to be sure it’s something that resonates for me. If I’m trying to second-guess an audience, the work is usually dead in the water.
Here’s the quote:
When an archer is shooting for fun
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.
His skill has not changed,
But the prize divides him.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.
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In my September 2012 post on my “In the Studio” page, I bemoaned my boredom with photography as a source for my paintings. Well since then things have changed quite a bit. While photography has limitations, I am once again finding it very freeing, in different ways from working from life. The paintings that “just happen” very quickly are ones that I sometimes prize; but there are also the larger works that emerge slowly, and are an accumulation of “hits” and “misses” that are moves toward the final goal of an image that registers for me something that I hope to call Painting.
The layering of glazes can subtly alter the surface and create nuances of painterly depth that a “premier coup” painting might not. Each approach is just different, neither better nor worse than the other.
There’s also what technology can bring to the process–I’m fairly sure if Velaszquez or Vermeer were here today they would most likely be taking advantage of today’s photography post-production software in conjunction with their painting.
Along with working from reproductions of reality printed on paper or found on my computer screen, I also have been really benefiting from some life drawing and painting in the past while. It’s feeling good to do it all–– it just makes the work richer and I think more informed.
Today we needn’t be And/Or but can easily say yes to Both.