Spontaneity verses Deliberation

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It’s gawky and somewhat incoherent, and it’s one of my favorite paintings. I painted it years ago.  I had set the blue and white, China creamer on the steps in front of the house, filled it with clover flowers from the yard, and painted it quickly in raking light.  It was an impulsive thing to do and involved painting skills I did not possess. (There’s no interior differentiation of light in the shadow, for instance, little sense of space or dimension.)  I worked quickly, put in everything I knew how to put there and stopped painting when I ran out of ideas.  (No doubt the light had changed dramatically as well.)

I wouldn’t change anything about it.  I wouldn’t sell it either.  And since I doubt that people will ever be clamoring to buy it, the not selling isn’t really an especially remarkable gesture.

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Bonnard, unfinished painting

 

I note that artists are often asking if they should continue working on something or whether they should leave it alone.  And on the whole, I have to say, that if you’re asking the question you should keep working.  The very fact that you’re asking the question demonstrates that you’re aware of defects in the work that you don’t know how to fix (or are reluctant to fix) but you’re seeking a kind of societal absolution from having to go forward.  Isn’t it good enough as it is?

It’s true that there’s a kind of beauty that is spontaneous even when unfinished — or especially because of its being unfinished — something that is poetically evocative because it leaves much to the imagination.  However, if you are always hoping to get lucky with happy accidents you never really learn the deliberate skills that can bring something to refinement.

One way of learning skill and to compensate for the disappointment that’s intrinsic to this problem is to redo the same thing several times. Essentially, you take Degas’s advice. When the fear consists in worrying that you’ll screw the picture up, then simply make several of them and spread the risk around among them.  One of them ought to turn out decent enough.

You practice the riff just as a musician practices music.  You don’t have to do it exactly the same way each time.  It can be a theme and variations like Monet haystacks.  But the point is that you set yourself a goal and then strive to meet it, rather than setting yourself no goal and hoping that somehow you’ll accidentally fall into a successful painting.  As with other things in life, if you have no goal (none, at all) how will you know if you have succeeded?  And even if you don’t know what you want, you do at least know of artists whose work you admire, who set some kind of standard into your mind of what good art looks like. You can emulate something even if your own goals are hazy. These exemplars might be as varied as Matisse or Andrew Wyeth, but you do have goals. The question is can you dare to seek your real goals?

If the real goals are too hard, you have to break them down into some sort of constituent parts.  Maybe you work on drawing one day, on color some other occasion –on composition, on tonality, or texture, or proportion — or whatever — whenever.  You can proceed in baby steps.

That said, I don’t know what goals I had when I painted the still life above.  I’m not sure I did have any that were specific, that I could articulate, nor even ones that I could locate in the works of artists I admire. In that instance I ran out of time and happened afterwards to feel a mother’s love for my imperfect off-spring.  But in other works, I set myself goals (they are somewhat shadowy but they still exist).  The goals do not inhibit spontaneity.  Quite the contrary they make it possible. And I work very deliberately toward accurate drawing, deliberate color effects, and I often find that a path toward invention opens up precisely because I am reaching for something high.

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A variety among the works of the Old Masters, an unfinished painting: Jan van Eyck’s Saint Barbara.

 

Art is expression but it can be discipline too.  I’m not talking about the (to my thinking) empty discipline of the punitive plaster cast school of art — the one that says that you have to do a hundred pictures of noses from plaster casts before you can dare to portray even a turnip from nature.  I’m not talking about the false discipline of someone who sets artificial obstacles in his own path so that he can afterwards declaim about how many hours he spent perfecting a dry looking painting.

Instead I’m trying to evoke a living kind of discipline, one established in longing, the sort of situation in which you find that you love something very much, enough to strive to get it right.

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How many haystacks did Monet paint, anyway?

 

So these two ideals can sit comfortably side by side.  There are times when the first few strokes catch the thing in a way that painting further would only ruin.  And there are also kinds of achievement that only arise from persistent work, which will never be got on the cheap.  It’s good to leave yourself open to both options: to be willing to work hard and to be ready to recognize the (rare) instance of inspiration when the thing seems to paint itself.  And you have to be honest enough with yourself to admit that there’s a huge world of difference between these two kinds of art.

blue compotier
Study of the blue compotier. It never got any farther than this.

I don’t know how many times I’ve drawn the blue compotier, but I love drawing it and it’s blue corridors hypnotize me every time I look at it anew.

Note to self: fighting & the beginning

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.

spottie

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Revisiting my idea

I’ve been doing an experiment in a life class

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memory of my original impulse illustrated

 

once a week drawing heads larger than life size using bright invented colors. Each week the drawings seem radically different from ones I made in the class before, from which I conclude that I succeed in their being “experimental.” But I had more motive than just trying something new. I had a specific idea that prompted the whole thing.  It was an idea about a color.

Remembering what prompted me to attempt this experiment, I realize that I haven’t used that color yet. I haven’t actually done what I thought would be the good thing to do.

It began because I was looking at someone else’s drawing, a drawing made in a life class, it was larger than life size and was conceived tonally. The lighting of the model was strongly directional and each student’s drawing had a cast shadow that fell from the model’s chin. A row of these drawings was visible from where I stood, each with the same cast shadow. Looking at one of the drawings, the thought popped into my head, “what if instead of a dark shadow, there was a shape that was a beautiful brilliant light violet color.” I’ve written about my project before HERE.

I know I’ve been affected by my fondness for works by Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Richard Diebenkorn and by the late works of Edgar Degas. In front of the actual model, one feels a tug toward realism — a kind of demand that you get the drawing right, obtain a likeness. I’ve been very free with color, but I feel this conflict about drawing and am never sure what I really want from the session. The artists I’m emulating were in each of their different ways, though, very free about the image.  The most notable would be Matisse’s La Raie Verte.

la raie verte Matisse
La Raie Verte, Henri Matisse

 

The colors are completely invented. The drawing is very sparse and bold. And yet one gets the feeling that the identity of the sitter is present. I don’t want to paint my drawings in pastel like Matisse, but I am striving to get at a similar freedom. And it’s not that I want to paint in a fauvist way, but merely that I want to see where something leads. I want to understand this impulse from the inside.

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Richard Diebenkorn portrait face

 

When Richard Diebenkorn experimented with a similar idea (above and below), he did so quite literally, using the bold lines, summary drawing, exaggeration of drawing and exaggeration of color just as Matisse had used before him.

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Diebenkorn, page from a notebook

 

The arbitrariness or expressiveness doesn’t just arise from “modern art,” however.  Degas used color, light, and paint texture very expressively in fairly early works. It’s a trend that always ran like a current in his art, sometimes classicist, but sometimes romantic.

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Edgas Degas

 

In Degas’s late works the treatment of the figure both in terms of drawing and color becomes very rough and exaggerated. I particularly love his late pastels for their rugged beauty.

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In the life class, I feel a tension also because the other people drawing are for the most part seeking realism.  I’m the outlier. I’ve done realist drawing.

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Aletha Kuschan, self-portrait using a mirror c 1987

 

Yesterday however my drawing was very far from realist.  I was not attempting to make it exaggerated in form, and the challenges of the particular pose were considerable: I draw the face much larger than life size so I am making decisions about proportion continually. The model is not always easy for me to see, and during several poses I’m having to look up at the model so that the pose is foreshortened.  Sometimes I can’t get back from my drawing and with my nose to the paper I’m actually looking at my drawing from a foreshortened view, having to look up to see the top and down to see the bottom. Yesterday’s drawing was definitely not what I wanted. But there’s no experiment if you’re unwilling to make something that you didn’t exactly intend. The experiment lies in the not knowing the outcome, when deliberation and happenstance meet.

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one of yesterday’s drawings in pastel

 

It’s strange that the exaggeration that I love in the works of my heroes makes me a little uncomfortable in my own painting. I’m not sure what the discomfort means.

Do I want a greater simplicity such as one finds in Bonnard (left) and Diebenkorn (right)? Bonnard’s works evidently sometimes had very chaotic beginnings and we know also that they had quite amorphous and complicated conclusions.

Bonnard three women
unfinished Bonnard painting

I have been mulling over my experiences in the life class trying to figure out what’s the best way to go forward during the remaining sessions.  I have collected some images from the internet of things to draw at home to “practice” and am thinking about doing my next in class session by drawing the model at a smaller scale and then perhaps making the larger than life size pastel from my initial drawing (enlarging it) rather than directly from the model — or letting the first drawing be a quick rehearsal for the pose.

I just don’t know what I’ll do, what I “should” do, or even quite what it is that I seek as yet because it’s all part of this experiment.  As chance would have it, however, I did not use a violet shadow in any of the drawings I’ve made so far. The color violet was the idea that prompted the entire project.  I’m thinking that at the very least I should obtain a stick of the violet color I need and have it on hand next time to carry through that part of the idea.

TT54

 

Far away teachers

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An internet friend introduced me to the paintings of Australian painter Elizabeth Cummings, who until today was completely unknown to me.

Cummings has taken inspiration from some of the same artists as I, and yet her paintings help me see these painters — ones like Bonnard and Matisse — with a fresh sense of the possible.

So I put aside the project I was working on to make a quick pochade in a less reserved way. I have not gotten any where close to Elizabeth Cumming’s abandon. But I creep toward something of my own.

My inhibitions are strong. I can only shake them off a bit at a time. I need my hang ups. They’re an essential part of who I am. But sometimes I let them relax.

Flowing Blue

The river flows with water, but here flows with blue.  Smeary blue crayon.  Sky catching. Some of the blue gathers over the entire space, flowing from the river into the sky, from the sky as reflections into parts of the trees.  The blue that is air, the blue that is H2O, true blue that has flowed into my brains.

Bonnard’s moody wife

Sometimes when there’s no time for anything elaborate, I just draw in the notebook.  This drawing I copied from a Bonnard painting I found reproduced in a book.  The medium is ballpoint pen.  The generalized features with which Bonnard captures the personality of his mysterious wife lend themselves well to casual, careless pen lines.

I made this drawing in a journal where I jot down comments on the passing days.  It will surprise me again someday, perhaps years from now, when I stumble upon it once more .

“My Diebenkorn”

Richard Diebenkorn, were he still living, would be about my mom’s age.  So he was a grown up painter when I was this size.  He’s like an art Dad to me.  (Matisse and Bonnard are my grandparents.)  I wanted to paint something that was thoroughly my own, yet Diebenkorn-like.  A wonderful large Diebenkorn of a Seated Figure Wearing a Hat was on display at the National Gallery of Art around the time I made my picture.  The textures are very different — his and mine — but something of the brushy Diebenkorn surfaces comes to life in its own way in my picture too.

My painting is a self portrait. It depicts a larger than life-size, two year old me, clinging to her doll which “me” is afraid of losing to some other children.  To get this image, I used a little square format, black and white photo dating from Post-Cambrian times.  It’s a striking picture (if I’m allowed to say so myself).  It’s a very modern sort of thing to shake up just the right kind of bright decor.

And I need to find it a home.  It’s kind of an orphan!  [Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 56 inches, by Aletha Kuschan]