dogwood tree at moms

A really wonderful painting with minimal technique is something to be sought (if technique is construed as “knowing the means of doing a thing”).  The problem with the beginning is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Usually you don’t know what you do know either.

Generally people think of the beginning as being where the rookie is. What is less often noted is that anyone can be at the beginning in some context. Artists who do the same thing over and over, having mastered it (whatever It is), are arguably no longer at the beginning. They have achieved a mastery in the sense of being able to predictably repeat past performances at a similar level of difficulty with no loss in quality.


But if you’re the sort of person who wants to be doing something new because you distrust sameness then the beginning is a place you can enter again.  It’s harder, though, than one might suppose. I can become a beginner if I adopt certain kinds of subjects that I have never portrayed. That might be great if these things were things that I want to paint. But lots of things that I never did consist of things that I never wanted to do. Doing those things now wouldn’t represent growth, it would just be stupid.


So instead the challenge about doing something new relates to doing something that you want to do but have never done before, and more particularly doing something that’s difficult to achieve even at one’s present level of skill so that the challenge really puts you out of the comfort zone.  And THEN, not using one’s present knowledge to just think oneself logically through the technical problems, but rather using one’s ignorance itself as a tool so that you can dig, grab, flail your way along.

old-sketch-of-flowers smaller

I think I would rather struggle with a new thing than to use what I already know to render the new thing into some homogenized facsimile of what I already know.  Innovation — seeking and striving to get it — is more about immersion in a new experience than it is like coping by using all the old skills on new ideas. I don’t want to prettify the new thing with the contours of the familiar old things.

bonnard boxing
Pierre Bonnard self-portrait


I want to confront the new thing in all its new-to-me-ness and fight my way through it just like I fought with subjects when I was a young artist.  Is that why Bonnard portrays himself as a pugilist in the series of late self-portraits made in the bathroom mirror?  Well, I don’t know. Bonnard’s intention and his thoughts across a hundred years is not available to me. But I want to find subjects that are hard in ways that formerly would send me to the fainting couch except that instead of retreating to the couch I want to stand and fight.

lattice ptg

Art doesn’t have to be a fight.  I’m not saying that. Art can be refined, easy-going.  It can be a long walk. I’m just saying that if it’s a long walk, I want to walk somewhere I’ve never been before. I am looking for new experience, even in the things I’ve done again and again. I want to experience them in some innocence. I want to be overwhelmed by them. I don’t want to know what I’m doing. I want to figure something out as I go.


10 thoughts on “Note to self: fighting & the beginning

  1. You know you have basically brought it all to this post, my “angst” which is always there, if not fully engaged, it is lurking. This is part of my make-up, it isn’t to become complacent and do perfect or near perfect art (in my mind) but rather, the experience, the searching, the attempt to grasp the unknown is why I walk the fine-line between angst and frustration. The unknown is always something that I wrestle with and yet if the unknown was known and I felt comfortable I probably would step back into that pool of the unknown and again, the angst! crazy! I want to learn to embrace that area of the unknown, the imperfect, the striving. The challenge of the new is that wonderful area of growth and wrestling that I really do prefer, just not the pull my hair out kind or maybe it is because I am not bolstered up with rest beforehand! I love your posts, you are a gold mine of thought and exploration. 🙂 I appreciate what you have to offer so much, I thought that you might need to hear this.

  2. Thank you, Margaret. I love long comments because in them people begin to get to the heart of things. Writing such things is also a form of experiment since we don’t know who we’re writing to! They are like notes in the proverbial bottle sent floating onto the ocean.

    I also appreciate your saying that you thought I might need to hear this. You are a wise woman.

    What a lovely and thoughtful comment.

  3. Even as a new artist, I’ve learned how important it is to step out of every “comfort zone” I find. It feels good, of course, when I see myself making progress in one area of art, but my journey isn’t about “feeling good”… it’s about seeing how far I can go, it’s about learning more than I ever thought possible, it’s about venturing beyond my limits even though it means I’ll fail as often as not. For me, everything I’m doing with art right now represents something new, something I’ve never tried before, so the journey is continually offering excitement for me. I don’t ever want to become complacent, to lose sight of the hopeful emotions that are part of each project I attempt. Trying something beyond my abilities results in failure as often as not, yet it also results in knowledge and experienced gained, which in turn, allows me to move father along the road and to make even more discoveries.

  4. I prefer to dig deep and explore art, life, at the deep level but most people are either too busy, too complacent or don’t want to travel that road. I keep it close until I see or discern a person will understand or appreciate it. I am too self conscious, I think. I have been called “a straight shooter” and it can be disconcerting for some people. By the way, you are quite welcomed 🙂

  5. I know that there are beginners who find my blog. I am not in the place they’re in. I was a beginner when I was 16. Off and on since that time I have pursued drawing and painting with considerable seriousness of purpose. (The fun came later.) I won’t tell my age, but let’s just note that I’ve had my driver’s license a long time.

    Beginners sometimes look at someone who knows how to do stuff and think, “oh, I wish I could do that.” But I look back at memories of my own beginnings and wish that I could recapture some of the emotion of that time. I felt art’s impact so deeply. I recall there were times at the National Gallery when I couldn’t stay longer than, say, thirty minutes because I’d get so overcome with emotion.

    Okay, some of that was hormones. But still.

    The beginning is not a bad place to be. I know that now. I didn’t know that then. Would that I could morph now and then together into a powerful mash-up. The mature persistence of now with the youthful shock and awe of back then. So that’s the place that I seek.

    I do think it’s possible to recapture the beginning. You have to set out on a new path. And you have to be willing to be a beginner. And of course it sounds nice in theory, but the same things that made you resistant to the beginning when you were a beginner make you resistant to the new beginning that you say you seek. Human nature is still human nature.

    So I seek things that are challenging for me. And I strive to get my butt in gear — to get down and give myself 50. And I strive also to enjoy that struggle and challenge as much as I possibly can. John Singer Sargent who could paint anything often would paint literally ANYTHING. I think at a certain point, no matter what he was painting, as long as it was not another society portrait, he was content.

    I never realized how great an artist he was until I saw some of those other things. His virtuosity was always stunning and obvious, but his artistry was considerable too. For me, it becomes most evident in the ephemera that he painted when he was “off duty” from his much sought after portrait business ….

    Anyway, those of you who find this who are beginners, real beginners, cherish the time and use it wisely. Combine hard work with all your longing.

  6. Beautiful paintings Aletha, and also a great post on learning and stretching boundaries, I think, which it a constant theme for me. I especially like your still life with onion and flowers and the second last image – hovering on the thin edge (ledge?) between representational and abstract art.

  7. I painted the still life w/ onion a long time ago. I have wondered what it would be to return to a way of painting that I did decades ago. The last one is a small collage. It does indeed hover between. It started as a drawing of something (a landscape, I think) that I tore apart into pieces and reglued into this composition and which I afterwards drew over a little. [I didn’t tear it up because I was dissatisfied, it was part of an experiment — i.e. the drawing I made I had intended to tear up so that I could make the collage from it.] I’ve always liked it & am not sure exactly why. Thank you for your kind remarks, fruitfuldark.

  8. Reblogged this on Wyrdwend and commented:
    “The problem with the beginning is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Usually you don’t know what you do know either.”

    True of every form of creation…

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