Saturday, December 6, 2008

Painting Again

I hadn't painted in months. This is what happens: I swear that I won't paint again, that I've had it with brushes and paints, with color stains on my pants, my shirts, my carpet, my skin. I will give myself fully to dry words; I will stop cheating with that other mistress—the wet, messy one. I won't so much as look at a painting book. When I pass by Utrecht or one of the other art supply stores, I will avert my glance from sale tubes of bright paint, easels, fancy watercolor sets, and other items on display in the window. I will be pure of heart.

It never works. After two months I'm starved for images, and not just for images, but for surfaces coated and scumbled and crusted in and with paint. I start going to galleries and museums. Most of what I see I merely dislike; the rest either offends or inspires. One good painting--that's all it takes to set my heart ablaze and make me want to dig brushes loaded with paint into grounds rigid and flexible. I long for endless hours in the studio among pots, tubes, buckets and plates of paint. I long to get away from dry words and to dirty my fingers and clothes with bright plastic colors.

And so this past weekend, saturated with a longing for texture and color, for the the things I merely feint at with words, I put on my painting pants—a pair of gray trousers splotched with paints of every color—and a slate blue t-shirt likewise spattered and smudged and daubed and smeared with motley hues—and went into the studio. I found a clean stretched canvas still wrapped in cellophane and pulled it from the high shelf where I store large paintings. I put some music on the player—Chopin etudes. I took down my jars of paint and laid them out on the stainless steel table. I filled three coffee cans with cold water, and grabbed some brushes from a fourth can—one large flat, one small flat, one Japanese sumi brush. I pried open a big plastic bucket of white gesso. I arranged the canvas on my drafting table and started.

I had in mind a painting of a ship, an ocean liner. A big, bright, beautiful ocean liner, with three burning red funnels. Ocean liners are for me what bowls of fruit were to C├ęzanne, what hay stacks were for Monet, what clowns and judges were to Rouault, what bulls and satyrs were to Picasso. They remind me of those trips to Manhattan I took with my father as a boy and return to me my child's sense of unmitigated joy.

I start with the ground, the surface. I dislike the texture of canvas--especially of cheap cotton duck. Why anyone paints on it I can't understand. I always want to do something to it first. This time what I did was this: I took sheets of colored paper, mostly hand-made with lots of rag in it. I cut and crumpled them up and glued the wrinkled pieces down in random patches using thick coats of acrylic polymer medium, like someone papering a wall. With the entire surface coated I trimmed the edges. 

Then I began to paint. I started with black, creating a matrix of thick sloppy black lines that would serve as the architecture or the armature of the painting. Here you see Rouault's influence. No one ever made more of black as a color than Rouault. The drawing is everything. This is what most people who set out to paint fail to understand. For painting drawing is the equivalent of point-of-view. It is the foundation of everything that follows. To be any good even an abstract painting must be built on a solid foundation of drawing. No drawing, no painting. If i am any good at all as a painter it is only because I draw well (on the other hand if I am no good at all it is for the same reason).

One the matrix of lines has been created, then it is time to paint. I lay in thick coats of colors, working dark to light, letting the colors spill over the black lines, knowing that the matrix can always be reinforced if need be. I try very hard to be careless. All good painting is the result of happy accidents. Anything that follows too closely to a plan is doomed to failures. Artists must take risks. The risks are where all art happens. The rest is preparation. If we are careful at all in what we do, it is by way of preparing for happy accidents.

In and out of the black lines I work my colors, always being careful to NOT be careful, trying against every force of reason in me to defy the urge for precision. Precision matters only in so far as it accentuates and draws attention to what is fortuitous and spontaneous and incidental. When one looks at a painting, precision seduces one; but what resonates is always incidental. Only accidents really matter.

I worked all day and into the evening. I could not get the color of the funnels right. I was unhappy with the blue of the waves. The smoke from the stacks was too rigid. The whole painting was too rigid. I painted over sections, always letting the colors underneath show through, hoping for more and better accidents and incidentals. This is what painters do. After all these years I am still not a real painter, but I can dream.

At last I finished. There was nothing more to be done but to make it worse. I wrapped the finished painting in a gold frame found in my closet.


Anonymous said...

Painting seems to stress you, so I really would concentrate on my writing which you have a passion, natural talent for and an audience; which seems to be increasing as you go on your book readings/reviews tours which are reaching a broader audience.
Just thought I would leave a comment to let you know I am reading your blog; also studying your style of writing-trying to pick up some points to help me become a better writer. Congratulation on 2008 award.

Jung Hae said...

I like your ocean liner!

Clare said...

I don't read blogs -- but this was a treat!
Your ocean liner looks as if it was once lighthearted, but since it put on a bit of weight has slowed down a bit.
I think it would like to be embraced by the steam from its own funnels, and stop trying to get anywhere at all and just be. It has the quality of a mosaic.