Before I got a cat with an attitude, I used to make small paintings of bouquets like this one. Even in the case of these flowers the green fond that hangs over the edge of the glass got partially eaten. My parents’ cat. I had to paint the tip of the fond and its shadow from memory.
I used to have a cat. For some artists, that might say it all. In my case, having a cat meant that doing any kind of sustained still life was iffy. I had been in the habit of painting flowers in brisk sessions lasting at most four hours, when it was “paint as fast as you can time” (a wonderful challenge in itself). But I wanted to paint a more complex still life — even just a larger still life than I had been painting up until that time.
I wanted the background to be black. Black was also a challenge. Could I introduce aspects of color inside the black? Could there be lights and shadows within it? How much variation could I put into it and still have it be emphatically black? And I wanted to dwell on the subtle color variations around the flowers. I wanted to explore adjacent color effects in a bouquet, for which I would need fake flowers. And once I decided that they would be fake, I determined not to worry very much whether the painting announced the fact or not. If my flowers did not bloom at the same times of year, I would say I merely tipped my hat to the great old Dutch masters of the 16th and 17th century for whom the fictional bouquet was a special genre of vanitas. And I wanted to paint my favorite floral cloth. My picture would have as its conceit the contrasts among the real, the pictorial and the fictional.
Just one problem, one challenge, left — the cat. Cats can be so peculiar, and they are so easily offended. A cat that is ignored, even occasionally while a still life is being painted, can harbor a grudge. A cat with a grudge likely finds it necessary to take revenge upon a still life. Though any feline can walk tightrope paths around any object no matter how dainty, a cat with a grudge is (as likely as not) going to feel a necessity to knock all pretty still life objects over and, well, after that que sera sera.
So I thought it wise to disassemble my still life after each painting session. Yes. I took it apart and reassembled it again next time I painted. Hence, another reason why the flowers needed to be fake. After about a month of working in this fashion, trying with each renewal of the painting to carefully replace the objects each in their own spots next to specific places in the pattern of the cloth, the Dundee Still life (above) was finished.
Something wonderful happened in this painting, something quirky that grew out of never quite getting everything back into its original position, something that morphed into the flowers of the cloth coming almost more to life than those of the vase. The figure and background become just slightly confused. The resulting subtle confusions of the painting is something that I love.
And I owe it all to my cat.
About six years ago, I set myself the challenge of painting a large picture. I had made earlier attempts, but none that I felt succeeded. The logical way to learn to paint monumental works (it seemed to me then and seems to me now) is to paint them. The painting above, measuring 66 x 82 inches, was my first successful large painting. It’s painted in acrylic paint.
A bunch of intermediate steps led to this picture. For instance I made a “cartoon” of the whole thing first. Cartoon refers to an actual size drawing of the subject. Making the large drawing was an adventure in itself. The immediacy of drawing and the fact of this thing being so big, it was as if I could physically enter the painting.
The things in the picture played roles in our lives. My then pre-schooler daughter’s drawings formed the basis for the “stones” of the wall. The blue lizard was one of her toys. The picture’s story grew out of one lovely day’s adventure, during our regular walk to the place we call “the stone wall.” Here, one abandons oneself to the beauty of nature. We pause and just look at whatever comes our way. We hunt for lizards and frogs. We find interesting insects. We peer into the world of the very small. Yet in the fantasy of the painting, it’s possible to have a flamingo who watches over you, too. The fracture in the sky above the dreaming child is like a ladder that Jacob saw with angels traveling between heaven and earth. It is a passage way to wonderment.
For the artist, a picture should challenge your skill in some way. What is your challenge?
Why are you attracted to one object and not another? One sight catches your attention, and something else passes by you as though it were invisible. I have never known why I paint and draw water. I love the color blue. Blue has its own built in mysteries, quite apart from what it attaches to. It is the color of the sky, and it pulls us into a sky hidden inside the heart. Blue is an expansive color. It stretches away and above us. And it’s altruistic. People who like blue want things to be clear and straightforward.
But the pond has a particular meaning for me. I have been drawn pondside at meditative moments in life. Once I took an unscheduled, unannounced long drive in the morning (this was many, many years ago). No one in the household was awake yet. No one knew I had left, and naturally therefore they could have had no idea where I went. But then I did not have a planned destination. I just decided to go for a drive in the country,though the roads of the place were not well known to me. Mine was random wandering launched by mere whim.
At a certain juncture I decided to stop. A branch of a local river was supposed to be nearby so I decided to park the car and walk to what I thought would be a creek or stream. I didn’t know my location when I descended down a dirt road through pine woods early that morning. At the end of the walk, I didn’t find a creek. Instead I found a pond (fed by the creek?) that was absolutely isolated and still. It lay upon the ground like an enormous mirror aimed at the sky. I walked right to its nearest edge and looked down and realized that I could not locate the water’s surface. All I could see were the seemingly endless depths of the morning sky reflected back at me.
In retrospect it seems almost as though I was magnetically drawn to this water as by a mysterious fate just so that I could see magnificient liquid light. I have drawn and dreamed about ponds in the intervening years. I don’t know what they mean, but they are reservoirs of more than just water. They are filled with resonant, echoing thoughts. They are mirrors reflecting the depths in life above and below. And of these depths — whether of love or friendship, a desire for purpose or direction — the edge of the surface is similarly hard to locate. It could be measured in a few breaths or in distances of long years.