I have begun finishing koi paintings. It’s a strange process finishing a painting because it’s such an open-ended and uncertain process. Of course, in truth, finishing is nothing more than continuing to paint until one is “done.” If you have a very specific notion of what the image should look like, arriving at “done” is mostly a matter of nose grind-stoning. But it’s very possible for a picture to be elusive right until the very last minute, which is kind of what I’m up against with these koi — and this is all the more ironic since I’m painting some of them from preexisting images. All I need really do is just copy my image (the painting’s are enlargements of something), but somehow mystery enters during the translation. I don’t recognize the paintings being at all identical to their sources — indeed they are so different that I can honestly say I have no idea how they will turn out.
I get some sense of what novelists talk about when they describe their characters taking over a novel while it’s being written. I knew I was making progress on a painting when the koi started swimming — and that’s a good thing. I want them to swim. But I don’t know where they are going. And you’d think I would know.
Why is the artist always the last to know?
Above, still unresolved swimming going on.
In the previous post, I displayed the whole drawing of which this is a detail. I like to look closely into my own drawings. I like seeing stuff enlarged. All the small lines of thought fascinate me. It’s a good way to think deeper into what your doing. All the hatchings, all the little smudges … isn’t life like this? All fuzzy with texture.
This isn’t a self-portrait. It’s a detail of a drawing I made after a Raphael portrait. However, I do pout like this sometimes when I don’t get my way.
I have been revisiting my large drawing of flowers, posted previously here. I have been trying to get further inside the details of the thing. I am trying to see into the structures of the individual flowers and into the empty air that surrounds them. Both flowers and the air are one and the same for the artist since both equally represent the surface of the picture. Both flower and empty air matter to a bug, too. One is the destination and the other one’s medium of travel.
So, I have become like a bug. I travel vicariously through the flowers of my picture, looking for nectar.
When you look at the details of a picture, you see how its illusion is created. The image above is a detail of one section of the flower bouquet. It zooms in on the flower patterns of the cloth that’s piled up against the vase of flowers. From this vantage, much of the expression of three dimensions is lost to sight. The shadows and the lights appear to exist on the same plane. In the detail, one realizes how much the third dimension of this particular drawing was created by the motif as a whole since without the whole motif we cannot see distinctions of figure and ground.
These “textile” flowers are as impressionistic as were the “real” flowers in the vase. Both are abstractions: shapes that appear in masses whose details consist of lines, hatchings and scribbles. So, for instance I began some of the flowers of the textile’s pattern as rough, smeared shapes of red crayon. And afterwards I went back into that red with lighter or darker shades to begin the process of imitating the tonal differences within the flower. The irony is that is so doing one makes a “picture of a picture” since another artist designed the textile that I use in my still life.
The character of the drawing materials is hard to conceal, and I made no effort to hide it. The visibility of the drawing is what attracts me to the use of crayons. But it makes the illusion of the subject harder to achieve. The tonal qualities of light passing over objects — the light and shadow of the cloth and its folds, or the diffusion of light around the contours of the vase, or the contrasts of light and shade amid the masses of flowers and leaves — all these effects have to be created through either hatchings or smudges and are refined by careful positioning of light or dark or warm or cool tones.
The visual qualities that pass before your eyes, the numbers of choices available to sight, are staggering in potential complexity. From among all these possibilities one chooses a path that is your rendering of the picture.
It’s as though you confront a vast field thick with flowers and wild plants. You see a prospect you want to reach, and you ponder what direction to take through the brush to reach your destination. If you follow something you learned from an old master, it’s as if you have found a path that you can walk for a distance. And when that path wears away and returns to the full wilderness of the meadow, from that point onwards you must walk your own path.
And this fact is not a difficulty. It is freedom.
I let a bunch of time go by without posting anything. Like many bloggers, I spend some time musing and pondering this new medium called “the blog,” and wonder aloud about the different genres of writing that it can evoke. For me as an artist, I would have to say that it’s impossible — or nearly impossible — to write about the work I’m actually doing — at least when I’m doing it. Art doesn’t make good journalism. Art is not an “every day” kind of topic. No “breaking news” going on. It’s mostly quiet stuff.
I mean I could write a narrative of how I actually work. But would anyone read it? And survive? Awake?
Painting is a slow art form. Sometimes it’s like watching an ant parade. You make all these abstract decisions: how large is this shape? what color is this exactly? should I put this here or there? should this line be wider? lighter? should it taper? or should it be bold? or is it okay — even wise — to fudge? to guess? to be in doubt? Should an edge be hard or soft? Do I draw today? Or should I paint? And for me, lately, my questions are ones like “do I finish the koi or begin the flowers?”
How does one make these questions interesting for a reader? Even my mother is not holding her breath waiting for the answers, yet these choices are — they really are vibrant, living questions.
To be able to describe the act of painting and all its attendant thought processes would be a fascinating project if you could truly put the reader into the same relationship with things that you’re in when you paint.
That’s one of the things I try to do, but it’s hard. We are the heros of the dramas we live ourselves. Yet it doesn’t always look so exciting to the outside observer. To capture the authentic excitement of quotidian existence ain’t easy! Especially when its small and it unfolds slowly. Like molasses leveling.
But I try.
If you’re an artist, you need never leave childhood behind.
This story has a childlike appeal too. One fish swims upward and the other dives.