I was nervous about starting, but I have begun putting the bouquet of flowers into the Big Painting. They take up a lot of space and occupy the central most part of the canvas so I know I need to broadly determine their forms first.
In the beginning I just locate them in generalized shapes. Later I have to paint individual flowers — or more accurately, I have to include the smaller, individual patches of paint.
I was nervous, but I’m over the jitters. Now it’s just paint, paint, paint.
If I wanted to copy the source photos I use to make my koi pictures, to make even an extremely accurate copy of the complex image captured by the camera both the fish and the water as they are frozen in a moment of time, with the myriad facets of atomized color, I could easily do it using any number of rational methods, as for instance using grids; but interpreting the image is what I want, and the distortions that I introduce from my observations, both my deliberate changes as well as my “mistakes” offer so much material to explore, and so I resist the temptation (admittedly it is weak) to reproduce the photo in an exacting way.
The photo already exists; why copy it?
But even if I did use a grid to transfer the image, and I may do that at last — I have done things like that with other works — within each of the small squares, I tell you, all the same freedom to muse and to invent still exists. You can introduce the distortions at whatever level of detail that you wish, in every little square.
The first stage of the painting is like Matisse. Surely (it seems obvious) Matisse must simply have discovered that the ebauche has so much punch on its own, when the first large forms of an image are rendered solid from the dreamy vapors of imagination. Edges are crisp, shapes as simple as elementary school cut-outs, the colors like color names. One’s green is green, and a sky is blue.
So often people wonder at how they should talk about art as though it comes prepared with prescribed rules. Something in our notion of “culture” makes one reluctant to shout one’s delight in that bold way children do. “Kids are born curious. They’re always exploring. We spend the first year of their lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the rest of their lives telling them to shut up and sit down,” said scientist Neil de Grasse Tyson.
A lot of people become fairly mute in front of a painting for fear of misinterpreting it somehow. Now, I’ll admit, it’s not really such a bad thing to let an image function purely as a feast for the eyes. But everyone wants to express themselves sooner or later in words, and it’s okay to let your own thoughts take to the air without worrying whether or not one has found the authoritative key.
Well, I decided to continue beyond the ebauche and wander into that territory of making the painting more specific. I pad into the landscape with footsteps that are still mushy and soft. Still not much specificity as yet at this stage. But the colors divide themselves into more variegated sections. From one simple form several interior passages unfold. My manner of painting resembles to me a garden that blooms first spindly and tentative and later leafs out and grows dense.
And thoughts grow dense. The landscape of the painting what mental forms is it meant to describe? What refuge is available in the wilderness of paint, in the solitary travel through one’s own quiet picture garden?
The purpose of the painting? Shh — that would be culture talking. Just be delight. Even to talk pure nonsense. Just look and delight.
When I was young, I thought that every centimeter of a work of art was supposed to matter. Ah, youth! I suppose I’ll still grudgingly admit that every centimeter ought to be trying to accomplish something, not just sitting there reflecting back photons. But time has tempered an idealism that I was not in any case capable of attaining in my youth, notwithstanding how charming an idealism it might have been. Today I realize that sometimes a drawing doesn’t get what you were after, no matter how earnestly you search or how boldly or sensitively you work, and that’s okay. That’s the reason God made trees so that we’d always have more paper lying around to use for having another wack at it.
Even if a particular drawing doesn’t capture your goal, it may supply the experience you need to get where you’re going. In drawing we learn stuff about reality. If you draw flowers, you learn about flowers. Often we think that we already know what we draw — even that we know what things look like. Yet if we really look deeply, we discover something new about the familiar world.
I started a drawing as a study for a painting. I work on it in sessions — but I figure that of course these sessions still count as “drawing a day.” Here’s a few peeks at the parts. This drawing doesn’t feel to me like it’s going anywhere, but I work steadily all the same because sometimes you just go along for the ride. The moments spent looking are taking you somewhere unknown.
I have blocked-in the flowers of my 36 x 48 inch canvas in a rudimentary way. It has a “Matisse à Nice” kind of feeling in this early stage of painting. Everything is thinly painted. Everything is just “there” enough to suggest the composition as a whole, and yet I have lots of room in which to wiggle.
This is a wonderful stage for a painting — where there is a chance for firmness in the initial drawing and yet still so much opportunity to dream.
As I have already mentioned I’m painting koi these days. And the koi painting is a very abstract and free image since the fish are moving and their precise shape and anatomy is not visible. My koi sometimes won’t even come to the surface to greet me. Then at other times they fly out of the water as though they’ve momentarily forgotten that they’re fish. Consequently I see them as fluid distortions that blend with the water in which they live, and their presence reveals both surface and depths.
So it seems odd that I should be thinking about little squares, but I am. For a long time, I’ve had a complicated emotional relationship to the works of another artist, American contemporary painter Jennifer Bartlett. (More about her later.) While she certainly did not invent the square, to which delight I think we owe thanks to someone among the ancient Greeks, she did give the square rather more of a high profile than it had enjoyed in a long time. Even there, of course, she borrows (whether knowingly or not) from a famous precursor Pierre Bonnard — who saw squares everywhere, even in the foliage of the trees.
Perhaps it is not strange then that I look at my koi paintings with an eye to discerning the grid that possibly overlays their pond. If I sought a very precise rendering of the image that I’m painting, as I translate from a reference photo to the canvas, I might impose a grid over the photo and block it in square by square. Since it’s interpretation I seek and not a photographic idea, I have no motive to desire such precision. However, the idea of the grid still beguiles me. I think of each square as a window that opens up a more intimate view of that section of the picture as though we might open a door onto some little corridor of reality. I want to peer into those squares to see what each one holds.
But the grid that overlays reality, conceals as much as it reveals. Ce que tu montre et que tu cache … there is this elusiveness, this ineluctable something, this je ne sais quoi that persists. It is the mystique.
[Top of the post: Photograph of a shower curtain (with a design in blue squares behind which can be seen parts of a paper mache fish), photo by Aletha Kuschan]