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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ll stick with “we know it when we see it” (knowing full well that nothing could be farther from the truth in these contentious times in which we live). Instead I simply invoke the idea of “Art” [fill in the blank here] so that I can say that lots of things that artists do are not art, but are sometimes instead preparations for art. I made the drawing above to be telling myself where various objects would sit on the still life table that I was arranging in my thoughts. So the drawing isn’t art, but it provides some first ideas concerning something that might afterwards be art.
Musicians understand this readily since there’s a whole lot of not-music that must be made for music to happen. Before all, you have to learn to play the instrument. Some drawings are the way you play your scales and arpeggios. Some drawings are more diffuse like a jazz player’s chord chart.I happen to love a not-art sort of drawing. I love freedom in its many guises.
A certain kind of drawing is like tuning the instrument. Or warming it up. A clarinet is going to sound a little different after the player has warmed it up. The vibrations of playing open the wood and the reed. And the musician and the artist also especially have to warm up the other instrument: the mind.
There’s all kinds of drawings. Drawings that sort out visual problems or ideas. Drawings that we do for pleasure. Drawings that are meant to be fully presented works in their own right. We’re all familiar with these. My father’s surgeon decades ago drew a very unscientifically illustrated picture to communicate how he would do my father’s colon resection — this, on the night before the surgery, and the lines wiggled this way and that, following the surgeon’s words. And when this virtual colectomy was concluded, he handed the paper to Daddy who eventually gave it to me (post-surgically — after everything was good again). I, in turn, put it in the back of a volume on Edouard Manet where the drawing remains to this day.
The surgeon wasn’t an artist and that drawing was about ideas expressed as a pictogram, a scribbling image where appearance didn’t matter as much as narrative. (I don’t recall the surgeon saying “I’m not an artist” as so many laymen do when taking up a stylus. I loved him for that. Drawing is not a special club to which only some people are allowed to belong. He just started talking and drawing.)
But what about another kind of drawing that isn’t art. I was just coming out of the Chinese restaurant with our take-out food when three birds flew across the parking lot at about the level of my head, turning instantly in formation to avoid me as I walked, whizzing past me to wherever they were going. I was wondering what it would be to draw the birds in flight. I never did properly “see” them in the way I see things that I draw in my life as an artist. They flew too fast to really see. And I have no use for them in the art I’m making now. But it would be interesting to attempt to draw what I remember.
However, I’m not sure what I saw. Did I see the birds’ bodies? In that instant that my brain thought “birds — wow — they’re flying right to me” did I also see the parking lot or much of the rest of the scene (my car, buildings across the street, other cars, power lines, miscellaneous urban stuff)? I think of their bodies in flight, their relationships to each other, the three of them flying like a squadron. These visual memories have nothing to do with art. If I draw them, I don’t think the drawings will be art.
I painted a spider ages ago because it had built its web on the front porch. But the painting is just a painting, and merely contains some thoughts about what a spider looks like.
If the art part of my artist’s brain is like a room, then these images — both the ones I drew and the ones I didn’t draw — are like things tossed in the back of a closet. They aren’t art. But they are intriguing small incidents in the course of a life.
The shell and the drawing are different. The shell is made of minerals formed through invisible intelligence. And the drawing, on the contrary, comes about through mute astonishment. At that juncture a wise artist will transform himself modestly into a compliant stylus. You empty your thoughts and “walk” through a landscape of lines, colors, and light and dark patches.
The marks are thoughts that signify, “I see the curve swell toward this direction,” and “the line escapes here and dissolves,” or “this part seems to press into the space-time here — then to disappear behind the dimensions that float in front of sight.” The marks are thoughts and emotions too.
Some lines betray one’s doubts: “I think the contour is here — or is it there?” Some marks skate onto the paper boldly, whether by confidence or by the sudden loss of friction. Thoughts can slide along the paper and you can get ahead of yourself, as the saying goes.
I chose them originally for their forms. The shell is a complex object in the way that Nature likes complexity. You can turn a shell around, examine it from various perspectives, and each view offers substance that your thoughts can try to grasp.
I wanted something hard to draw, something that would push back as I sought to understand it. I get some of the form of the shell inside my mind successfully only to discover that it has new elements that I didn’t notice before. The more I push, the more it pushes back.
Even without color the shell is mysterious, the ways that light and dark curl around its ridges and projections. Add color and the complexity increases as warm hovers or cool recedes around it in a veil of light.
I’ve been spending my days and nights at the beach. There’s a beach in my mind and along its shores, sea shells float upon the incoming tide and are deposited on the still life table where they pose majestically while sitting among a variety of brightly colored cloths.
And I stare at them. And they would perhaps stare back at me, except that the mollusk has long since flown the coop.
So I contemplate them. At long last I will frame the drawings, and send them back into the ocean of the world, where they can float into someone else’s consciousness and bask in the gaze of a mollusk-mesmerized spectator. And mollusk magic will hold sway. Again.
A new-to-me conch shell arrived in the mail yesterday. I had already begun drawing it from a photo before its arrival. Now I’m drawing it from life. I want to get to know every lovely curve, texture, and ripple of its beautiful form.
I’m so amazed that an animal makes a house as glorious as this one.
Part of becoming an artist is learning to live in rhythm with nature. Though human society continually urges us to “hurry, hurry,” you learn — or periodically must relearn — the walking pace of twenty-four hours, the luxurious dawdling of childhood, the slowness and thoroughness of the body when it heals, the all deliberate speed of the body as it grows. Charitably let’s assume that flustered hurry serves its own purpose but often you find that it serves not your purpose
You can allow your attention to fall where it will, notice and enjoy the first attention grabbing item of your gaze. You can follow the edges of objects with the lines of your pencil, steering those lines as carefully as you steer a bike along its route.
The path of attention pulls you toward this, necessarily pulling you also away from that, but you can accept these distinctions without needing to justify them. Your interests are your own business and your mind’s attention as worthwhile as the clamor of society’s claims. Once you note that your mind, your eyes, your emotion has seized upon some prize, feel free to grasp it full and carry it off for greater perusal at your leisurely pleasure. Like a squirrel with a nut, claim it for your own. Learn as much about the elements of the world as it pleases you to do, allowing your own natural curiosity to be a good measure of what store you need, of what to hoard and what to relish.
My desire to achieve a better understanding continues. I am redrawing the koi, going one fish at a time, and I’ve decided to build a pond in this fashion, fish by fish.
You’d think that a “perfectionist” would finish each drawing but in seeking koi understanding I discover that parts of the image reel me in more than others. Who is doing the fishing here?
My fishies mesmerize me. I draw only so much of a fish and then I move on. I haven’t a clue what I’m after. I feel a tug on the line, pull, discover there’s a fish there, toss him into the bucket, and toss the line out again. It’s like that.
It’s kind of a wavey, ripplely, floaty blur. I sit there fish-eyed. The room’s the bucket. The room is full of fish.
I have no idea what I’m doing. But something is happening. And there’s an awful lot of fish around here. As to the one that got away ….
None of them gets away! Indeed, some of them just get bigger and bigger!
I think the best way to learn how to draw is to copy the works of great artists. The practice of copying is better than an association with any living teacher (as wonderful as that might be) because you can learn aspects of what the great artist knew without having the great artist standing there nagging you. (Degas does have something of a reputation, deservedly or no, for being a bit of a crank.)
Many, many years ago I began my habit of acquiring art books so that I would have good reproductions of paintings to look at, enjoy, copy, and study. And now the internet offers an added opportunity to learn that is so amazing that it’s difficult to characterize how revolutionary it really is.
I just learned, for instance, that the National Gallery has updated their website and it’s possible to see enlargements of their paintings now online. I made my drawing of Edgar Degas’s “Girl in Red,” using the enlargement at NGA’s website. So I am able to peer right into Degas’s girl’s face in a way that I could never do in front of the actual painting.
I made some fast sketches too because I enjoy just putting down the visual ideas as they occur to me. It’s fun. There’s something very freeing about looking at something and taking aim. Some people go to the Carnival and toss balls at the bucket hoping to win a prize. I throw pen lines at a notebook, and it’s Carnival all the time.
The image changes in subtle ways. Your hand goes to different places. But then too, after a while, you have all these notebooks that you open, and have these faces that look back at you.
I make some drawings from memory too. I think about the image after I have spent a long time drawing it, and the memory is physical almost more than it’s visual. I remember the image in my hand. Sometimes I draw with my non-dominant hand, though I didn’t yesterday. Of course it’s easier to draw with one’s dominant hand. My right hand has many more memories than my left hand.
I also think it’s good to draw late at night when you are too weary to fight yourself, when you can be persuaded simply to let a drawing be what it is, when drawing and dream meld together.
Can you imagine a person at the Carnival who just kept throwing balls at the target? Someone would not give up! There might be a hundred balls lying about that missed the target, but he was determined to win the prize!