I have a favorite painting at the National Gallery of Art, a dear old favorite friend of a painting. Me and this painting go back years! It’s Vermeer’s Girl with a Flute. The tapestry in the background, in particular, amazes me. The background alone contains some of the most astonishing bits of painting that I’ve ever seen. In the softly articulated, indistinct shapes of the fabric behind the girl, you find much of the painting’s music. Its flute notes are all piped in blending, meandering riverlets of color and tone. They are so out-of-focus as to be completely unrecognizable, yet they are persuasively, pervasively “real.” Whenever I see the painting I’m reminded that all of life is like this one scene. The world is luminous and mysterious, indefinite and mutable, meaningful and inscrutable.
And in something like this spirit of inscrutability I enter my garden of crepe myrtles. I don’t of course own the garden. I own the scribbles that establish the garden of my pencil. Though I have to follow the park rules about when I can visit my trees, with my pencil they transform into personal, imaginative property. I wander through them like the lady of the manor. And I abstract them with all the freedom that Vermeer taught me to feel before nature.
My pencil lines are thoughts about form. I say that the tree boughs shall grow to such height! I will that the greens be bright! I indulge all my whim for foliage and fond. If I want significant swaths of bright white paper peeking through, so be it! It’s my dream, my vague and transcendent fabric!
About ten years ago, maybe longer, I stapled a piece of canvas paper to some cardboard and began drawing my blue compotier in quick strokes of paint. And what happened after that? The phone rang? I dunno. Whatever it was, I quit working and never resumed the painting. And it has stayed in this haphazard condition ever since. Of course it was only a study from the beginning. The canvas paper is torn and oddly shaped. But I love this unfinished picture.
It’s the kind of thing you do strictly for yourself, the way that humming in the shower is distinctly different from a recital. I made a record of forms and linear contours in whatever order they struck my notice. I was unconcerned about the identification of the object, about whether anyone can tell what it is. I observed instead its visual properties, and they held my gaze perfectly well in all their abstract purity.
The beauty of a sketch offers dangerous temptations. It can make one timid about going forward. The sketchiness can be so beguiling that one becomes reluctant to make that necessary journey toward finishing an idea. In my youth the buzzword was “over-worked.” It was the great terror. God forbid one overworks a picture. New bugaboos have replaced that idea now. Of course, there does exist a genuine fault involved in finishing something in unmeaningful ways. Yet we must bite the painterly bullet and go forward with ideas, willing to make mistakes of judgment in the interest of learning real visual lessons.
An artist definitely needs to learn how to go beyond the beauty of impulse, ephemera and accident. Certainly. But equally truly, one must have one’s moment of daliance with these delights. Or else one forsakes the encounter with pure form. It cannot be got any other way. Sometimes it comes just so fleetingly.
Artists learn to accept the stops and starts of discovery in order to get the knowledge that comes hidden in the different places — in the mind’s different corners of impulse and deliberation.
Blogger June Malone posts a copy she made after an abstract Gerhard Richter watercolor, saying that she wasn’t sure she understood Richter’s abstraction, but that copying one taught her more about achieving depth and richness of color in the watercolor medium.
It inspired me to pull out my copy after Diebenkorn above. The original, Berkeley #57, painted the year I was born, lives at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There’s a great many differences between my copy and Diebenkorn’s original painting which I’m aware of even though I’ve never seen the actual painting. I’ve seen enough Diebenkorns to know that his oil painting’s surface is very textural whereas I kept the acrylic paint I used to make my copy fairly thin. The scale of the paintings is radically different. Diebenkorn’s painting is 58 3/4 inches square and mine (not truly a square) measures 18 x 24 inches.
However, like June, I found the practice of copying an abstract painting very intriguing. My approach to copying Diebenkorn, not withstanding the paint, is rather more like a drawing in feeling. I drew his lines and shapes, felt my way through the image’s forms, and ignored (of necessity) the layerings that I know exist in the original. Also, my copy has a lot of “me” in it.
Copying his painting was somewhat like taking a short walk with him in a Berkeley of imagination (I’ve never even been to California). And while we walked, suffice to say we had a brief and pleasant chat.
Diebenkorn’s painting is abstract, having no identifiable subject matter. But it contains many feelings about natural forms, some of them landscape . Equally it has many touchstones to early European and Euro-american painting: indebtedness to de Kooning, for instance, and through de Kooning more remotely to Picasso. The SFMOMA site has some videos of Diebenkorn being interviewed and working.
The drawing I posted yesterday in its first rough lines now looks like this. I might be doing some other versions as well. With this drawing I am figuring out what the reflections of the upper corner of the painting should look like: their design. The reflections are from trees that overhang the pond and the ways that the water’s motion catches and breaks up these dark greens.
The pattern is very abstract and doesn’t have to follow any particular pattern. It is entirely adjustable to whatever shapes seem most striking. So I draw different ideas — all of which are based upon the source photo — but which become slightly amended and distorted versions of it. The “reality” in this study that will finally matter is the one that evokes the pond’s mood.
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.
So far, this fish face has just a whisper of a whisker. But it’s there!
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!
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!
I have been making sketches for the second of the koi paintings, redoing the same motif over and over as a way of thinking about it. I am like an actress learning her lines. The lines I learn, however, are the ones I draw. I rehearse the gesture of making these lines, of thinking about the composition as a whole, of thinking alternately about the shapes of the fish and about the shapes of the water in which they swim.
One morning while working at the computer, I thought: what the heck, and I did this digital drawing using a paint program. The motif is copied from the oil painting, which is still just blocked in. So this computer “study” postdates the actual painting and develops simultaneously with it. I’ll post the canvas in a bit. Since beginning the lay in of the picture I’ve also made two drawings of different sizes.
It is much harder for me to control the lines on the computer, yet it’s interesting and challenging in ways that resembles playing a computer game. I find that doing a picture in a paint program has a “technique” just as do other media. I haven’t begun to master the use of the paint program with its switching between tools by grabbing them with the touch bars. I didn’t always have the tool icon that I thought I had and was “undoing” as much as I was doing — something that not even the use of an erasure quite matches.
In the traditional media of the artist, there is usually not much of undoing that one can do — just a going forward or a beginning again.
What people call abstraction is not really abstraction. People think that it’s a genre in art and its opposite is “representation” (a term that had to be invented once abstraction became a trend). Abstraction is merely a giving over to perception. A pure visual data that comes into our eyes via the optic nerve exists for us only as an notion of possibility. No one really knows what uncoded vision might be. By the time we are able to speak, we have already also learned to see, and things are things. Once you can give a thing a name, you’ve made it possible to ignore much of what it looks like. Artists, however, are people who make the trip back into perception. Yet even an artist cannot see things deprived of their thingness. Our brains shape the world prior to our awareness in ways we can barely imagine.
Children imitate speech before learning their language. They get the rhythm and sound out with something that almost passes for English, or French, or Chinese, or whatever — only it lacks a clear vocabulary! I think to some extent children express bits of pre-vision also even as they are learning to see — or learning to see while defining more and more of the world in words. I gave my daughter a paint brush at a very early age, and she did more than “just scribble.”
I found a logic and rigor in her first paintings. And they are not devoid of “representation.” When she could talk she used to tell me what was inside her pictures, and there were always things. A child’s “abstraction” is only apparent to outsiders. A world of things lies hidden inside the marks.
A true abstraction has nothing to do with whether objects are recognizable in a realistic way. Ingres’s paintings and drawings are full of the most beautiful abstractions. Before they are things, his lines are pure lines. Their lyricism and sinuousity stands apart from a mere rendering. All the greatest works of art have a visual logic that resides deep inside the image, really at its core. Thus to endow a picture of something with a vivid abstraction is merely to bring back into it the immediacy of living perception.
[Top of the post: A picture of something by the author’s kid at age three]