My Fish & Emily

Some years ago I first learned about the amazing paintings of the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Australian painter of monumental aborigine images.  I have been thinking about her again in regard to my koi paintings, which are abstract in ways that resemble Emily’s dreamings.   The gesture of the fish swimming is bound up for me with Emily’s lines and dots in their wild structures — so reflective of living things — or of the organic knitted-ness of a night sky’s bright stars still visible in desolate places like the outback.


Adjacent To

Perhaps because paper was once in short supply, we note that the old masters drew on their rare pages with more joyful abandon than is typical of artists today.  And they were more thrifty.  Often a page of old master drawings will have several subjects on the same page, and they will not necessarily have anything to do with each other.  Often they are at right angles to each other.  And sometimes artists (like Ingres or Rubens) would even put more than the correct number of limbs on their figures — all presumably in the interest of deciding what the pose should be.  Four armed ladies?  Let’s not go there.  Save that for another occasion.

In our era of anything goes, it’s interesting that this conceit — this putting lots of things onto the same page hasn’t caught on as a revivified trend.  Heck, a lot of artists could do it and suppose that they were inventing something brand new (the ones who have not studied history, that is).

Besides things that happen to rent space on the same page are the colors that halo objects.  Everything in the world is colored and if you look really closely at all the color, it can drive you nuts!  There is so much of it to notice.  I didn’t peer too deeply in this drawing, but just enough to put some blue on top and green on the side of the marigold.

[Top of the post:  Studies of Plants by  Aletha Kuschan]

Night Water

Night water.  What shall we said about it?  Large, measuring 50 x 58 inches, bright, lush in many deep blues, it’s about water, dreams, imagination and the interior life.  And about night.  Where would it look best? Perhaps in a room with colors of pale yellow or warm cream.  Being large and dramatic, its scale fits where a bold and striking is gesture is desired.

Its subject is nature — nature as we are least inclined to consider Her today — as mysterious and ineluctable, as something over which we have no power. Nature acts as we sleep.  The modern notion of “global warming” reveals our hubris in vague imaginings.  Do we control nature?  Such a small slice of Nature is even visible to human perception despite our extended, scienced senses.  “Nature” existed eons before human beings appeared and will go on eons after human beings are gone. 

How shall we recover our sense of wonder?  How do we recover a true sense of scale?  Who can even control his temper? Yet we suppose we will control the atmosphere?

A pessimist painting  “Night” might have portrayed a meteor hurling toward us, earth in its sights!  Yikes.  More hopefully, I painted birds sleeping in the dark, under a full moon, lolled to sleep upon dark waves that are reverberations of the categorical wave, like the waves of gravity that Jim Gates studies. 
“Night” in a primordial sense is what I sought.  God-created darkness and light, a darkness called “night” and a brilliance called “day.”

Animals sleep and so do we.  Do they dream like we do?  Night Water is about states of wonder — and authentically so — it began without the waterfowl, without the moon, it began with just waves. 

We are fellows of the myriad creatures that Nature sustains– here, enfolded in comforting night. 

Advice from the Pros

The precise quality that renders the sketch the highest expression of the idea is not the suppression of details, but their subordination to the great sweeping lines that come before everything else in making the impression. The greatest difficulty therefore, when it comes to tackling the picture, is this subordination of details which, nevertheless, make up the composition and are the very warp and weft of the picture itself. 23 April 1854 [trans. Lucy Norton]

Ce qui fait precisement de ce croquis l’expression par excellence de l’idee , c’est, non pas la suppression des details, mais leur complete subordination aux grand traits qui doivent saisir avant tout. La plus grande difficulte consiste donc a retrouner dans le tableau a cet effacement des details, lesquels pourtant sont la composition , la trame meme du tableau…..

Paris 23 avril, 1854

Now, I won’t make you guess who said this!  It was Eugène Delacroix, the great 19th century French painter.

Recapitulation/ a theme and variations


I keep painting the same picture over and over.  And I don’t even know I’m doing it.  Here’s an instance.  I discovered quite by accident, as I was photographing one painting (posted earlier) that another painting, portraying an entirely different subject, looks rather like it.

Here details of both paintings with their edges juxtaposed.

In moments like these you realize that the meanings of paintings go deep indeed.  The forms as well as the content reveal aspects of the self.

Would you know thyself?  Take up a paint brush.

Still life Update

Here’s the latest version of the painting in progress that earlier I had posted here.  It looks entirely different.  Of course.

One wonderful aspect of the first incarnation was the white of the canvas around the first masses of the image.  Well, alas, that had to go.  But the dark masses have a different charm.  And hopefully the finished painting will be best of all.

Wish me luck.

Just Do It

          Draw, place colors, think about apples, look at the unexpected lines and structural arrangements that arise from the blunt facts of material nature sitting there on your table.  Consider that you can get the idea of their forms with a most concise kind of line or you can probe down to what you imagine to be the molecules with a very loving, lingering observation of the fine nuances of color and tone. 
Have no thought about “style” at all.  Forget that such a notion was ever uttered.  Think only about the reality before you and your earnest efforts to grasp it.  Absolutely no originality is necessary.  Indeed, just the opposite frame of mind would be most helpful at this juncture.  Simply paint as though you were Nature’s walking, talking Xerox machine.  Your own nature is as deeply a factor as that of your apple’s nature and it will express itself if only you do not interfere.  Let yourself simply exist with as much materiality and spiritual durability as this apple and have Nature be the author who addresses us through the alternating gestures of your fumbling or your certainty.
And, as Van Gogh once said so grandly, if you hear a voice that says you are not an artist, “paint my Boy” (or Girl) “and that voice will be silenced.”


[illustration: author’s photograph of apples in a compotier]

My Cezanne

There’s no better way to understand an artist than to walk a mile in his shoes.  This is one of many studies I’ve made of Paul Cezanne’s Vase de Fleurs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.


Influence is something that sneaks up on you.  Where do your ideas come from?  Do you know?

I’ve looked at my daughter’s painting of a tree many times.  For a long time it sat on the kitchen table and we saw it daily.  It has the big plain features characteristic of children’s art, a bold simplicity that modern masters like Matisse and Picasso found compelling and used as visual sources in their works.  I like my kid’s painting.  Not just because she made it.  Certain works of hers I have already copied directly into paintings of mine, when they fit into the scheme of a painting.  She draws really well (though it’s not obvious in this particular image) so I’m accustomed to using her ideas and of being “influenced” by her. 

But the similarity between these two paintings, hers of the tree and mine of the honey jar, didn’t strike me until they just happened to be sitting in accidental proximity.  From across a room, the resemblance is especially evident.  The cradling branches of her tree become the wooden honey ladle balanced on the lid of the jar.  The trunk becomes the jar itself.  The dark shadow cast by the tree occupies the same area as the path of white flowers of the patterned cloth in my picture.  The green boughs are folds of jade cloth in mine.  And the litle cloud becomes the ribbed end of the dipper.

I cannot say for certain that my daughter’s picture affected mine.  But influence is something like that — a quiet affect of images remembered.  Lots of other influences, no doubt, also found their way into my little picture.  I have been looking at still life a lot lately and found many artists whose works I love that I’ve spent serious time enjoying — a feast for the eyes.

The surest way to teach your visual sensibility is to just look.  Pick strong, beautiful paintings and just look at them.  A lot.  The understanding of how the best artists compose their pictures comes to one silently through long observation.  An ordering principle works its way into your mind through such a process of looking.  It is never a matter of rules.  A strong sense of how things fit together doesn’t come through a conscious process of following instructions, but through a kind of visual osmosis that is the result of looking and staring.  The best instruction comes through the manifestation of your own longing when you see something and think, “Wow.  I wish I’d painted that.”