If you could know why you paint what you paint … I am thinking that perhaps the placement of objects might hold the keys to the soul? Too strong a thought? I have written before about my epiphanous moments at the grocery store conveyor belt where I note that I arrange my purchases with Cartesian rigor. When I paint (thankfully) I am rather more laid back. But the selection of things and their arrangement does tell something about the artist for sure.
This painting goes way back — somewhere around the early 1980s. My mother used to have a colorful lamp that she got in Japan during the 50s. The red shade is visible in the upper left: a bit of whimsical decoration and the lightbulb socket are visible below it. Why on earth did I not paint the whole lamp? I think it had a doll-like figure, a Geisha girl or something like that as its theme.
Something red, a ladies handbag, I think, sits between the lamp and the flowers making a wine colored background. I never “finished” the flowers so at least one bloom defies gravity as it just hangs forever stemless above the glass.
Now compared to this arrangment of reality, I have this oil pastel still life that I made about seven years ago. My daughter was in first or second grade and I was “playing” with this picture with much the same spirit as my kid put into her games.
The flowers in the second picture are almost camouflaged by whatever it is that sits behind the vase. I began by placing object in relation to object, and later I put patches of color in relation to patches of color — twenty years difference in my ways of thinking, feeling, arranging.
But you should see me at the grocery store where I am unchanged and never changing– oh, the order, the rigor!
I have been surveying “how to” books again. There are some good ones out there. Most of them break the process of drawing or painting down into systematic steps which are intended to make the complex pictorial task simpler. Yet there is something about the carefulness of how to books that has always bothered me a little. In the attempt to eliminate mistakes, they demonstrate much unnoticed over-confidence in regard to what is “correct.” And where is innovation?
Innovation is hard to define. One way it comes about is through personality. Everyone is different, and if an artist impresses his (or her) identity into a work it perforce becomes individual. And yet to put your own ideas down, you must engage your own struggle with the material. That struggle leads to mistakes — those effects that were not intended but which occurred because of some blank space about what you know.
I call these extraneous mistakes “noise.” In the above my aim was to portray a geranium, and yet there were things in the background that were complicated and hard to summarize. It’s a short, spur of the moment picture. And I was just putting down quick colors and lines in the moment. Much of what enters is accident, wasn’t necessarily meant to be there, yet IS there.
Sometimes the noise contains ideas, sometimes not. But sometimes it has amorphous glimmers, or the nubs of ideas, ideas hidden in the shadows, and whispers. If you let that noise happen, you capture the all of your thought — even its indecision and confusion.
When you follow a recipe, you get the meal that was foreseen all along through the instructions. In contrast to that, “noise” provides one path to an unknown future destination of ideas. The recipe is like a map of known territory. The noise is a path through twilight.
That’s all the difference I can think to describe between these two states. Every artist does a bit of both things, follows directions and makes noise. I just want to be an advocate for the noise.
I like color. Color is the thing that made me want to be an artist. Just looking at colors cheers me. Putting the still life objects on the table, choosing one color to be next to another — this arranging the colors before even beginning to paint. The colors sitting on the palette. The light that flows over all the objects. Reflections, shadows.
And the in-between spaces of the still life really delight me. Do people know how wonderful the world looks in that couple of inches between the marmelade jar and the Chinese rice bowl? Or in that passage where the folds in the cloth float behind and near the chrysanthemum vase?
I paint to look at things. And if my paintings say things, it is “look at this!” and “look at that!” The world is so amazing to look at. We ought to be looking at it all the time.
The old adage to let sleeping dogs lie takes its sense from the fact that a dog awake is often territorial and typically barks or even growls and sometimes bites. To let sleeping dogs lie means that you leave undisturbed a matter that, if raised, could easily lead to argument or division.
But I can imagine how in the long rich artistic past this saying might easily have taken a different meaning, for among artists the thing you do upon encountering a sleeping dog is that you quietly and quickly pick up your notebook, grab a pencil, and start drawing. Naturally you don’t want to wake him up — not unless you draw very rapidly and have a talent for capturing the trace of things that move.
Our dog Spottie was a study in blacks. He had the most richly deep satin black coat of any animal I’ve ever seen. He was so much dog, too, that I’m not surprised at finding that I left the drawing unfinished. He was a very big dog. He seemed to go on forever. Clifford the Big Red Dog had nothin’ on Spottie, not for size, not for color, not even for adventure.
Anyway, here’s the advice for artists: let sleeping dogs lie, and then draw them!
I used to imitate the old masters very self-consciously. I used to think — and it was wise instinct working — that whatever the old masters did, they did for good reasons, reasons that one could only hope to understand through emulation, of walking a few miles in their shoes. So, you find artists like Rubens and Ingres who draw figures over top other figures, and I thought to myself: “got to try that.”
I didn’t have a model handy. But I had a dog. So I drew one Molly sleeping over top another Molly sleeping. My dog was happy to oblige my artistic requirements by fidgeting around in her sleep.
Now with self-generated art lessons receeding into the background, she looks like two companionable dogs together, or one dog perhaps dreaming dog dreams. Molly was such a smart and lively canine, I’ve no doubt that her dreams were indeed rich with Molly memories of her many Molly adventures.
Now only one question remains “which dog is the dreamer and which one the dream?”
Night moon’s gleam lit the yard, glowed the house, shook the trees. Against inky darkness golden, comforting windows warmed the night with fire-fly-like delight.
Mom and Dad inside, someone always there to call you in when it gets too dark outside.
Night moon’s gleam lit my big night’s space, and silvery pale echo reflecting from the white house answering. So much space, so much flight, so wide a night, so broad and endless sky.
Night moon’s gleam lit, but not so bright to extinguish distinguished firefly’s flights glowing, and then others, and hundreds of answering waves of firefly lights, wafting along bug flight-path sines and cosines.
Far away moon now from grand aged adulthood recalled, but still night moon’s gleam lit my dreams and got me back bright firefly night.
Life goes on normally now. I was miserable when I loved in silence. Now I work again. I am learning things that I want to share with my love.
Find quotes to serve as headings. Find quotes that can get your writing started, that can act as models, structures.
Sometimes use the quote but perhaps remove it finally, letting it be an invisible force behind your own words.
It may seem odd, given how much I paint the koi in their pond, that I am always looking for ways to do more of them. I am a very business-oriented koi person. I try to increase production. The koi themselves try to do that too, but they use different methods.
Anyway, one — among the many appeals of the grid is that it leads nicely into more work. The picture, for me at least, becomes a kind of knitting. All the “what if” is removed for a while and it’s simply a matter of rolling up one’s sleeves and getting to work. And the work is all laid out in the form of these squares to be filled. Fill them and move on — to more squares! And more!
When I was a child everyone entering the room during pea season was expected to grab a pan and start shelling. I feel that way about these koi drawings. And when I have a bunch of them, it’s nice to look back and be glad of the work.
So, be warned. If you ever come by my house in koi season, expect to be handed a watercolor pan. For when the koi are in, everybody’s got to paint!
I have the watercolor pan out, and it’s so easy to just pull out a sheet of paper and get going. It’s one perpetual poolside of koi drawing. I am shamelessly drawing and redrawing the same picture. I am hypnotizing myself with koi! Or perhaps the koi hypnotize me. Il faut refaire la même chose dix fois cent fois has become moveable feast. I can do the koi pond anytime I sit down at the kitchen table, and I can carry drawings about with me and work at them other places too.
The watercolor pan is my studio. The watercolor pan is my koi pond.
This one’s kind of a doodle sheet. I have a larger koi pond on a sheet of fine French watercolor paper that I’ve gridded up nicely to keep the koi under control. But this pond sprang up on Southworth “Connoisseur Collection” fancy 100% cotton, premium weight Business Paper (cream-colored). A box comes with 250 sheets. Potentially that’s a lot of doodled koi. In between sessions working on the big one, I sometimes feel the pull of making a new one. Hence, these doodles.
I do them for fun. They are like humming.
Someone says you can’t use a grid, it’s too rigid or it’s been done. Or it was modern, but now it’s not anymore. I heard some of these things, but I have ignored them.
I want a grid because the fish have gotten rowdy. They swim all over the place and don’t listen to me at all. They do whatever they please. They’re out of control.
They need discipline!
So I fitted this grid over them and it’s like putting a leash on each one, and forever I was to take them out for walks like obedient canines. For a while, but they found a way around that plan, Clever Koi. I have begun gradually to discover that each square of the grid had changed into its own new and separate picture, and inside these smaller pictures the koi found just as much freedom as before.
Each square opened like a window into space and time, and it turned out that, though the squares are smaller, each one has as much stuff packed into it as the one picture had held alone! Indeed, somehow the parts grew to more than the sum of the whole, and I find myself fooled by a weird new math invented by the koi.
I imposed the grid to be their discipline but they swam around anyway and now they have more space and more freedom than ever! What Descartes didn’t know! The koi devised!
I built a little gridded space-time bridge I use to walk above the pond.