The Other Koi Pond

The other koi pond is coming along too.  I have two ponds of fish in my studio now.  Each pond has its own personality.  These fish are more idiosyncratic.  They are each going in different directions.  Big fish and little fish pass each other, each on their separate fishy errands. 

The little yellow fish strikes me as especially resolute.  She swishes somewhere very emphatically.  She is a bright, optimistic little swimmer.

The painting is 30 x 40 inches, oil on canvas.

Drawing the Koi

I’ve gone back to a drawing that I began back in July, and I’ve been working on it some more.  It helps me think through the painting I’m making of the same motif.  Drawing adds another level of intimacy since each line and each scribble takes me into the image is such small and close steps. 

Colors take on an entirely different character when they are the effects of hatching.  “Hatching” refers to the parallel lines that artists sometimes use to create tones in drawing, and with a colored drawing like this one above (made with Caran d’ache water soluable crayons), the hatch marks can be used to create “transparent” color effects — where one set of colored parallel lines overlays a different set until the several layers produce a color mixture that is the sum of all the combinations.

The fish are very abstract still.  They dart here and there.  They are too intent on their travel to be stilled in our gaze.  They streak through the pond and leave beautiful, shining waves and ripples behind their path.

I paint the koi from photographs

I paint my koi from photographs. It would be an interesting experiment to do them entirely from life. Many years ago I painted from life almost exclusively, and back when I decided that I would be an artist, when I was trying to learn what I thought of as being the foundation of art, I worked from life.  I’m glad I did.  The habits I gained have worn well.  But later on, I found that certain subjects did not fit into an approach devant le motif.  Indeed, it became a kind of lesson in art history too — to become more aware of all the various kinds of artifice employed to create seeming “life likenesses” over the centuries.

The koi was something I wanted to do to explore abstraction in the wake of my renewed love for the work of Californian Richard Diebenkorn (one of my favorite 20th artists).  I found something that was very perceptual and which had a lot of distortion built into it, but which was of course as “real” as one might ever desire.  Yet I soon realized that I needed the photograph for practical reasons (the koi pond was not convenient to my home).  But I also soon found that the photograph interprets the image so thoroughly that many of the effects I found most interesting could be achieved by no other means. 

The camera stops time.  In some of my photographs (I had no idea what I was doing, by the way), the water was frozen.  Planes of the water’s structure were caught and carved out of their constant fluidity.  The amazing shape of the water as it moves was there to draw — something that I cannot see with the naked eye. 

Then the fish, also, were alterred in interesting ways.  In some photos the fish are stretched out as they swim through the exposure, the exaggeration of their shapes simulating something of their movement.

Happily I found that the photograph was amenable to interpretation as readily as the real place.  I began by drawing the photos very faithfully (I thought), but my own habits of vision interpolated something that wasn’t strictly there.  One introduces “distortions” that arise from longing and attention.  So I was in effect synthesizing the experience in ways parallel to what I would do when drawing from life.  Only the photograph opens up a world not visible to ordinary sight.
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The abstraction and the free gesture

There are so many ways of painting a thing.  That’s what the real abstraction of art is about.  As you are drawing, as you are noticing your subject, your attention takes you to qualities that someone else might not notice — or might not notice with the same emotion that you feel.  As your gaze ranges over the image, caught in the attraction of what matters to you, you are reinterpreting the life that you see.  Your being held captive in the subject gives it meaning — it reveals the meaning it holds for you.

The choice of subjects, the choice of how to see the subject, these are very personal things.  Many artists paint the same subjects, and sometimes a convention takes hold and the paintings will be similar.  This isn’t necessarily bad.  Conventions, traditions, can be very rich.  They can be ennobling.  Sometimes they enlarge ideas.  Many great artists chose to work in styles that were broader than their personal territory.  The great English landscape painter Turner made many landscapes in imitation of earlier masters like Claude Lorraine.  However, the reverse is also true: sometimes imitation of a style can become too conventional — so much that it conceals rather than reveals feeling and life.

But to let yourself be simply alive before the subject, to let your thoughts range where they will, to allow the subject itself (such as the swift koi) determine what the meaning will be — this is a wonderful way of losing oneself — and of finding oneself — in art.

Then painting is like music.  And it just goes over us and through us and carries us along with it.

These first blocked-in forms are a simple melody that I hum to myself: the music’s first notes.

More Fish Face

I remembered what it was that I loved about painting the koi — the abstractness.  Everybody paints these things differently.  Other koi painters love detail.  But I had looked to the koi as a subject in my first koi painting because I wanted something that was abstract yet represented something.  I like to paint stuff.  And koi are great stuff!

And the faces.  I find the abstractness in the small parts of the painting.  Maybe when they are finished, I’ll have represented them whiskers and all… who knows?  But this playing around with planes of color — and all the delicious difference of a color that is a nuance warmer or yellower or something-or-other-er than its surroundings — all that play of paint just delights me like a kid with a crayon box.

This, friends, is why I became a painter!

Fish Face

There aren’t enough hours in the day!  I am beginning to paint the fishes up close.  And the paintedness of the picture is my daily delight.  The image is settled, yet everything is up for grabs!  For the way of painting this “everything” is wide open.  And this is the part of painting that I love.  The gesture, the stroke, the decision, the changing my mind, and the joyful making of marks!

Coming up to the surface

My painting of the koi (originally posted on July 14) is coming along.  It’s not finished yet, but the fish are beginning to swim to the top.  I please myself in the discovery that many of my pictures seem to contain metaphors about painting.  (I love the art of painting, and hope that I am and always will be her champion.)

Just as the last layers of paint are the ones that really make the image exist, so the coming of the fish to the surface is like the idea arising into sight. Ideas in art come to us from depths, like images from dreams.  But in the act of painting we bring them toward the light and make them visible.

Feeling Catty

Sometimes (as now) a blog is a good place to gripe.  Imagine me on the other side of your fence.  You ask me how I’m doing, so I decide to give you an earful.  (Nice weather we’re having, though.)

Yesterday I saw a spread in a North Carolina newspaper (I’m still here, but should be getting home soon I hope).  Anyway, it was a whole page devoted to art events.  It consisted almost entirely of photographs.  One particularly caught my attention, and if it didn’t bring out the nicest side of my personality — well, perhaps I can be forgiven.

A fashionably dressed young man was posed sitting in a wingback chair.  Behind him stood his even more elegantly dressed and very attractive wife.  The two were pictured inside the premises of what the paper said was a “cutting edge” gallery in town.  And to one side, one could partly make out portions of the young man’s “art.” 

My first thought was “congratulations to him for what must obviously be some exceptional marketing skills.”  My second less kind thought bubble was: “too bad he can’t paint worth a damn.” 

It grates on my nerves (might as well be honest over here at the fence) that I feel an unseemly bit of disgust at a young artist-in-quotes getting this kind of attention when quite clearly (to me at least) his “work” doesn’t merit it.  Work.  Geeze.  It was the old cliche of “I could do that” and then some.  Anyone could do what he does.  Take heart all ye beginners!  That’s assuming his “work” has anything in it worth emulating.

Few of us get our pictures in the papers. (Didn’t I just moments ago say artists are shy?)  I’ve been in the newspaper once, but in my case, thank goodness, I actually had to compete with my painting for attention.  We were posed together like sisters.  But even then, it was the subject matter of my painting that got the attention not the art of my painting.  I’m still waiting on the art thing … I’ll let you guys be the first to know when my ideas are getting the publicity.

So, why does one feel a grudge?  Sour grapes?  I don’t think so.  It bugs me not because the young man is doing well.  It bugs me that he is doing well when so many more deserving artists are being ignored.  It bugs me his not having to pay any dues.  More than that — it bugs me that he evidently has no interest in the dues.  I would never have consented to have myself and my painting prominently displayed in a newspaper if my paintings looked like his.  Sometimes it is meet to be demure.

The whole point of art is the art.  The artist is the first and chief beneficiary of that, let’s be honest.  What you learn in looking at the world, what you learn in making the true attempt to record life (regardless what your level of ability), what you get from the act of seeing and drawing, all those things become products of your mind, parts of your soul.  They compose the memories you will carry around with you in life.  They are hardly trivial!

But what, I ask you, is the point of anyone’s striving when the trivial attempts are trumpeted abroad? 

Well, what you see is what you get.  Quite literally.  Though the papers be filled with the cheap and easy products of fake effort, no one who really loves art should ever lose heart.  What you see is what you get.  And the seeing of it — that’s life — that’s the living of it.  In art you can live ideas.

Art is not for the faint of heart.  If it matters to you, go blindly down the road.  Just do it.  (Not like a shoe commercial, but for real.)

Meanwhile, here at the fence, do you think we’re likely to get any rain?

Second Resume Bullet:  I griped to my neighbor and drew a picture of an annoyed cat.

Ugh! Writing a Resume

Writing a resume always throws me for a loop.  I suppose it affects most people that way.  But I think artists have an especially hard time of it.  For starters, it’s been my experience that artists like to talk up their work in inverse proportion to its merits.  The best artists I know are mostly shy, and the prospect of self-promotion is almost painful.  They are perfectly comfortable, mind you, discussing art in general terms — or even in explaining the narratives behind their own pictures — or their opinions about various art related topics.  The best artists I know are experts in art and have quite a lot to say about it and share their expertise generously.

But that’s a lot different from writing a resume or doing other kinds of promotions.  Whenever I do promotion, it’s like slipping out of my skin and becoming another person.  I try to pretend that I’m someone else looking at the paintings, and I try to “hype them up” a little based upon what various audiences seem to want or believe.  (Hope my target audiences aren’t listening.)

Perhaps “hype” is not the right word.  Let’s just say that I’ve come to recognize that my pictures may have different uses to people than what I originally intended, and I’ve learned to respect those other points of view as having equal validity — that art is “in the eyes of the beholder” as a practical matter.  So I inject humor into my advertising in regard to pictures that were never intended to be humorous.  Or I point out the fact that the pictures make bold design statements, although “interior design” was never a passing thought in my mind.

Mostly (as here) I try to help people enter the realm of visual meaning and metaphor — which goes much more truly to the heart of what I intend when I paint.  But sometimes the more serious message is not the most effective one.

I find that there’s an enormous difference between marketing paintings and marketing the artist.  My resume problems belong to the latter category.  Actually when it comes to the paintings themselves, I’ve never had a collector once ask me where I went to school or what grants I may have received.  They want to know things about the subject matter of the painting.  Their attention is fastened entirely upon what they see and how it makes them feel, and they don’t seem to have the least idle curiosity about my background — which is wonderful.  That’s as it should be.

However, all the things that the collector could care less about are exactly the things that one needs to address in a resume —  with dates, places, and details.  Half the time, I cannot even remember when I worked on a painting, not merely in regard to ones I painted years ago, but even as concerns ones I have painted recently.  Often I forget what I’ve worked on in any given year.  Often I work on certain pictures over the course of several years — for perhaps as long as five years.

  My “real” resume is a lot like Cezanne’s.  I’ve exhibited about 5 times in shows that were beautiful but unknown.  And, yeah, it’s okay to toss around the names of the big guys.  Cezanne’s resume when he was living is the one to have.  It’s all about working.  His life and his work were of one piece, and he just got up each morning and did it.

But, us — we gotta have resumes.  Alas!

New Resume Bullet:  During the last five minutes, I drew a little vase that sits on my table with a pen.  Took a digital photo of it.  Posted it to my blog.