The Secret of Painting

I share a studio with another artist and both of us use the place for storage as well as for work.  My friend brought some paintings there from her student days that she stacked against the wall, and from time to time I pull them out to look at them.  One of the paintings is absolutely stunning.  I look at it and it makes me jealous.  She was so young when she painted it.  “I never did anything like that,” I tell myself.

What is it that is so amazing about this particular work?  It’s anticipates, in certain odd and unexpected ways, the paintings my friend is doing now.  Yet it depicts just art school wine bottles on a table — the standard art school subject.  So what is the magic?  It’s the light, the moment, the life element.  Hmm, what do I mean by this last idea, I ask myself?  Yes, now I’ve got it.  It’s the intelligence.  You sense the thought and feeling of the artist, the sense of someone being alive, the sense of someone watching.  It’s all there.  She is looking, noticing the world, the play of light on these ordinary objects, mixing them together with the feelings of the day.  It is as simple as living. 

It’s what Van Gogh captured in his best works, paintings that were sometimes created in spurts of time just 4 or 5 hours long.  Some of the effect is youth, the intensity of youth, though that should not be an obstacle for an older artist (as it wasn’t for Van Gogh).  Indeed, here is the fountain of youth — it’s something like painting, or literature, or music.  You can watch the world intently at any age, and that’s all the magic of this picture in a nutshell:  merely “thought watching the world.”

I’ve been thinking to myself:  I’ll steal her idea!  Yes, but one can of course only steal as much as can be stolen.  That part of the idea that is intrinsically  her personality cannot be taken.  But it doesn’t matter.  I am looking at her painting.  What I steal is really that part of it that I noticed (me watching her watching the world) and that aspect is mine as much as its hers.  This is influence in art — the real way that artists use ideas that they get from other artists.  All that you can really steal is your own idea about what you’re looking at.  The part of her still life that is uniquely her imagination cannot be stolen, only awkwardly copied, but the rest can be taken for free.  The rest is just me looking into a mirror that is her painting.

Art is a mirror.  That’s why people seek art (whether they realize it or not).  They are seeking self-understanding.  They want the world reflected back to them so they can grasp it.  We want time to stand still just a little.

So, I think to myself:  I’ll immediately set up a still life of art school stuff!  Where are my old wine bottles?  Oops, I don’t drink.  What shall I do? 

But it was not the wine bottles that mattered.  And I already have two still lifes set up that I’m working on.  No, all I have to do is go back to these still lifes and watch and paint.  The light is there, flowing in and around the objects.  The moments of time passing are there, recorded in the activity of my own looking.  The painting is hardly more than x number days and hours spent in contemplation of a porceline surface, of patterns on a bowl, of light reflecting off of a pretty cloth, of the spaces that are filled with breathable air, of the clock’s ticking that is measuring out my life and yours. 

So perhaps the proper question is not what do I paint, but what do I notice about what I’m already painting?  No need to do anything more than watch and paint.