Me and Delacroix, getting inspired

I had a yen to drawing something large, and to do the koi in a more expressive way.  I’ve been reading Delacroix’s Journal again and discover that as I read certain images come to mind — in this case not his images, but my own.  Ideas for things to do, motifs from my own past that find encouragement from Delacroix’s enthusiasm for boldness and invention.  There’s always some longings and hankerings that go right back to the heart of why you started doing art in the first place.   Today at the secret bunker studio, I decided to let myself indulge my bold mood with a new koi drawing. 

I just started it, but even in the first stage I saw that the fish were growing.  These are going to be some much bigger fish.  While I was away doing landscape, these guys were getting big!

Delacroix’s Bridges

A writer has to say almost everything in order to make himself understood, but in painting it is as if some mysterious bridge were set up between the spirit of the persons in the picture and the beholder.  The beholder sees figures, the external appearance of nature, but inwardly he meditates; the true thinking that is common to all men.  Some give substance to it in writing, but in so doing they lose the subtle essence…. The art of the painter is all the nearer to man’s heart because it seems to be more material.  In painting, as in external nature, proper justice is done to what is finite and to what is infinite, in other words, to what the soul finds inwardly moving in objects that are known through the senses alone.  [translation Lucy Norton]

October 8, 1822

L’écrivain dit presque tout pour être compris.  Dans la peinture, il s’établit comme un pont mystérieux entre l’âme des personnages et celle du spectateur.  Il voit des figures, de la nature extérieure; mais il pense intérieurement, de la vraie pensée qui est commune à tous les hommes: à laquelle quelques-uns donnent un corps en l’écrivant: mais en altérant son essence déliée.  …. L’art du peintre est d’autant plus intime au coeur de l’homme qu’il paraît plus materiel; car chez lui, comme dans la nature extérieure, la part est faite franchement à ce qui et fini et à ce qui est infini, c’est-à-dire à ce que l’âme trouve qui la remue intérieurement dans les objets qui ne frappent que les sens.

8 octobre 1822

The figures and objects in the picture, which to one part of your intelligence seem to be the actual things themselves, are like a solid bridge to support your imagination as it probes the deep, mysterious emotions, of which these forms are, so to speak, the hieroglyph, but a hieroglyph far more eloquent than any cold representation, the mere equivalent of a printed symbol.  In this sense the art of painting is sublime if you compare it with the art of writing wherein the thought reaches the mind only by means of printed letters arranged in a given order.  It is a far more complicated art, if you like, since the symbol is nothing and the thought appears to be everything, but it is a thosand times more expressive when you consider that independently of the idea, the visible sign, the eloquent hieroglyph itself which has no value for the mind in the work of an author, becomes in the painter’s hands a source of the most intense pleasure — that pleasure which we gain from seeing beauty, proportion, contrast, and harmony of colour in the things around us, in everything which our eyes love to contemplate in the outside world, and which is the satisfaction of one of the profoundest needs of our nature.  [translation Lucy Norton]

October 20, 1853

Ces figures, ces objets, qui semblent la chose même à une certaine partie de votre être intelligent, semblent comme un pont solide sur lequel l’imagination s’appuie pour pénétrer  jusqu’ à la sensation mystérieuse et profonde dont les formes sont en quelque sorte l’hiéroglyphe mais un hiéroglyphe bien autrement parlant qu’une froide représentation, qui ne tient que la place d’un caractère d’imprimerie: art sublime dans ce sens, si on le compare à celui où la pensée n’arrive à l’esprit qu’à l’aide des lettres mises dans un ordre convenu; art beaucoup plus compliqué, si l’on veut, puisque le caractère n’est rien et que la pensée semble être tout mais cent fois plus expressif, so l’on considère qu’indépendamment de l’idée, le signe visible, hiéroglyphe parlant, signe sans valeur pour l’esprit dans l’ouvrage littérateur, devient chez le peintre une source de la plus vive jouissance, c’est-à-dire la satisfaction que donnent, dans le spectacle des choses, la beauté, la proportion, le contraste, l’harmonie de la couleur, et tout ce que l’oeil considère avec tant de plaisir dans le monde extérieur, et qui est un besoin de notre nature.

20 octobre 1853

My classicism

I have a painting that I am going to finish soon.  Really.  And I plan to resume working on it.   Having studied my calendar diligently I feel very confident of being able, very soon, to find myself reliably in the vicinity of the easel and the paint — for you know it’s difficult to paint when you are occupying one portion of the space-time and the canvas and tools are occupying quite another.

It’s been a busy month.

And during my unintended sabbatical from painting, I stir my hopes by doing same-size drawings of the motif.  It is almost like being there.  I draw the same shapes, apply the same colors, get some very similar effects, and so have a rehearsal of my idea and satisfy a bit of the longing for the motif.

And if one definition of “classicism” is the desire to perfect an ideal — well, I’m traveling that road.  Not by choice, necessarily, but I’m traveling.  It was forced upon me by the big “Detour” signs I encounter at every turn of an overly hectic days. 

But I won’t complain too much.  As long as my friends permit me to keep posting repetitious views of the same motif.

Impatience as a motive in art

The poet said that April is the cruelest month.  But February’s no picnic either.

Yesterday it was 65 degrees and sunny in North Carolina, where I went on an errand,  and now I am returned to Maryland where it is neither 65 degress nor sunny, and I am not happy about it.  I am happy to be in Maryland, but not happy about the weather.  Though the famous Pennsylvania groundhog promised an early spring — and I believe him — yet the taste of spring I got yesterday makes me impatient for its arrival here.  And that’s just the way it is.  I am impatient and grumpy, and I want spring here and I want it now.  Perhaps it’s one reason why I paint.  I can portray the weather I wish I were experiencing.

Though I was altogether caught up in other business during my trip, I did take a brief moment to make a very fast sketch of the Carolina moon through pine trees.

Who you are

This is my special little abstract painting.  It sits in the secret bunker studio and becomes the repository of odd bits of paint that didn’t get used.  I apply them to this panel, as whimsy dictates, rather than wipe them onto the rags that end up in the can.

And this is the top of a drawing of a raisin box (a detail) in a still life.  To my mind it has a lot in common with the special little still life despite having a very different history.  Delacroix said and experience proves him correct that the artist’s primary subject is himself.  This is not about narcissism (though that’s sometimes true as well) instead Delacroix merely observed that artists make all kinds of unconscious choices — from motif, to media, to compositional organization — and these things become the picture, and in an inescapable way what they picture forth is the soul.

Floating Oasis in the Space-time

I like to walk and many of the drawings I do are like walks that are taken vicariously.  The sheet for this drawing is small, 9 x 12, and yet I easily adjust to the scaled down image and soon wander amid the crepe myrtle trees.  The oil pastel crayon becomes an extension of body, a way of contemplating everything about a landscape that one might want to notice on a true mid-summer day in the open air where insects hum.

An internet definition of a mirage calls it, “a naturally occurring optical phenomenon in which light rays are bent to produce a displaced image of distant objects or the sky.”  I began with a quite genuine object which I bent to the needs of my paper, the paper color is a vivid red, and I indulge the exigencies of my still winter mood, which is heat seeking.  I want shrubbery weighted with flowers, and distant vistas of atmosphere bending to the earth, and crayon marks that blur into a lazy chaos.

Mirage that bends time and brings me most welcome summer.

Thinking about

I have to think about the stuff before I paint it — these days, at least.  Formerly I would set up the easel and have at it, but nowadays I typically must obsess over the thing some, fuss over it, sneak up on it, walk around it, muse, mess with, improvise a jazz riff or two over it.

So I have another painting on the “to do” list that’s been in a holding pattern since August, and I must go through the picture courtship ritual.  Decided that this time, I’d start with something simple and direct. 

Picked up the pencil.

And where I began ….

The airy field of light inside

The picture is a field of colors and lines.  Within the framework of whatever size rectangle, there’s an arrangement of layers of paint, brushstrokes, or in a drawing, lines, scratches of pigment, dots, patches, bits.

Another way to think of it is as being like a television screen or a photograph or like the image you see on your computer.  Every square inch of the image has maybe hundreds of little dots, depending on the media.   These dots mingle and blend to form the colors you see and their precise positions determine what kinds of shapes you see, whether the colors are light or dark, whether the transitions are subtle or stark.

As a painter you do something similar to arrange little dots or squares or bits.  You put patches of color down that blend to form whatever the picture depicts.

Or it is like a tapestry and the warp and weft are the precise positions of color. 

Painting something with precision means having to find the exact places that these colors and lines should occupy.

And what if one thinks of the reality itself, the reality over there as yet another tapestry whose warp and weft are light and air?  You look at that tapestry to paint your own tapestry-simulacrum.

However, of late I’ve searched for  the loose idea, the sketch whose virtue lies its evocativeness and have sought the ineluctable, ineffable form whose loose logic is a delight in itself.  And to what tapestry does it refer?  To an inner tapestry woven in thought, perhaps, or in desire?

Painting day

I had been doing so much drawing, and those pictures I made yesterday while I was searching for the loose idea made me want to resume this painting of the same motif, which I began last August.  When I take up an old painting again, one that I had left in a state of indecision, sometimes I sit there a moment without a clue where to begin.  And that was the case today.  I scratched my head a bit and afterwards decided to just paint.  Start somewhere, that’s my motto.  So, that’s what I did. 

I like blue so I put some more of it on the sky.  Doesn’t sound like a very weighty decision.  Not a lot of art theory in it, but damn the torpedoes.  I told myself I would paint on the old picture as though it were a blank canvas — if I wanted — that I would simply pick up the brush, choose a color, and put the color there.  Choose another and place that one too.

There’s times when you simply act.  Don’t think about it too much.  It was that kind of day.  And I had August in February, too.  Let’s not forget that.

Seeking a less precise line

In search of looseness an artist can get some help from the materials.  An oil crayon is not an apt tool for detail since the nubby ends are difficult to press toward exact effects.  You can think that you’ll place a line “here” only to see its parallel form about a centimeter over from the place you had intended.  The grain of the paper can come to your assistance too since a very grainy paper is difficult to fill.  I used oil pastels and the grainy side of a pastel sheet for their value as loose-inducing media. 

A close up of the picture illustrates these qualities very readily.

Prior to the first nubby mark on the grainy sheet, there’s a more fundamental looseness to be found – found because this is something that involves a search rather than a purchase or merely a choice.  The looseness of the idea is a different thing from the looseness that comes from the materials, or even from the looseness that one derives from making a sketch rather than a drawing. 

You can make a gestural sketch where every mark is an approximation of the perception.  Most of us do something like this without even trying — of necessity because the precise idea seems so much more complex and unattainable. Using a thousand initial imprecisions gets an artist inches closer to some idea held tenously in the mind.  And this is a good beginning toward something that wants from the outset to be unbounded.

Yet there’s a thought behind the gesture, an idea of imprecision that makes an invention of seeing, which constitutes looseness in a more ideal form.  It involves an evocation of something rather than a description.  It parallels the thing but does not copy.  It rhymes with reality and is also a fact of experience in its own right.

That’s the kind of looseness one seeks.  It’s harder to come by.  Yet all these other kinds are paths toward it.  They are ways of exploring the notion of imprecision.  The  ideal looseness is a destination not just a process.  It has its own artistic demands for surely one can overshoot the mark.  It’s like the game in which “knowing when to fold them” is one strategy (among many) for winning.  And proves that even the completely amorphous bit of thought  needs edges at last.