trying to figure out color

very early stage bonnard's window (2)

I have been thinking about what colors should occur in the painting I’ve just started.  It’s a different approach to painting for me — having decided to study Bonnard more closely.  There are largish areas of my canvas that have no real-life referents.  I can make those areas any color I want (just as the bathroom in Bonnard’s famous painting of Marthe was actually white).  My painting of an interior doesn’t depict an actual place — unless you consider the actual place to be Bonnard’s dining room in the Villa Castellamare at Arcachon.  I could use the same colors Bonnard did for some areas of the picture if I knew what those colors are.  But I have only my books to consult and even the best of them never get the color exactly right. It was a long time ago that I saw the actual canvas.

Well, mine is my painting anyway.  It’s a weird situation to be in to “be able” to choose whatever color I want.  I’m not used to that.  I typically don’t paint that way.  So, here’s to learning new things.

[Detail of the still very amorphous picture, above, taken at night in insufficient light.]

Miscellaneous related ideas below (including two of Bonnard’s works.


starts, stops, and dreams that continue

garden at baltimore

I been having an interesting conversation with a WordPress pal about the question of when a painting is finished and how you know when to stop.  Or, if you should ever stop. (Pierre Bonnard, we’re looking at you.)  I’m in a place in my art where I feel like I have to keep going forward with a picture until I really have no more ideas for it.  If I see something that I think I need to change, I change it.  I also make decisions with the specific aim of “finishing” the painting, but I find that I don’t really like the term “finishing” and I don’t seem to be alone.  I’m not sure why, as artists, we don’t want to finish the picture.  Would “complete the picture” sound better …?

One of the things I love about drawing is that there’s less pressure to finish something.  The drawing above is an example.  It is as “finished” as it’s ever going to be.  I was sitting before the actual scene on a summer day.  The clock ran out.  I assembled my things and returned home.  The ending of the drawing was abrupt and arbitrary, but the drawing does seem complete to me just as it is.

With paint you can always add more layers.  You can cover over an entire picture, if you like.  (As I’ve discovered in a big way with my current painting.)  So there’s really nothing to stop you from just painting and painting and painting.  And I do like the idea of getting into the weeds.  It can seem like there’s places deep inside an image that you can find, little corners where you can begin exploring, where you can get marvelously lost.  It’s not an idea that scores you points in art school discussions about composition, but it is an interesting dream-like way of staying inside a picture.  If you are willing to risk all, willing to blow the whole wad, you might completely screw things up but there are also potentialities — particularly in oil painting, a medium that seems designed for visual risk taking.  It’s a gamble, but certainly a more fruitful one than other forms of gambling.  There is that something that beckons.

Or should I say tempt?  I’m not sure.  I was looking through some canvases and found a couple that I thought were more or less finished and now I find that they are not.  Once I feel that way, I know I have to go back over them — otherwise, no matter what anybody else sees, I just see the “unfinished” picture.  It’s not even about an ordinary feeling that the picture somehow resolves.  It’s more that I just see too many openings for more visual information — stuff that ought to be there.

So that’s what I love, in contrast, about drawing — no pressure.

Okay.  So I say that, but as soon as the words escape I can think of a kind of painting that is very like drawing — a kind of painting where you reach a fecund moment when you — stop!  It’s wonderful.  When everything has just reached a nebulous, energetic, open-ended kind of fruition. I used to paint always, exclusively for that moment.  Now I’m wondering what it would be like to do that again.  And can you do it with a large painting?  Ooh la la, choices and decisions and longings.

Starting pictures is wonderful because the beginning is such a rich field.  The picture that you stop at the magical moment persists in that field of beginning but somehow rounds it out and makes it dwell in persistent potential, like a wave that crests but never falls.

Well, some things to think about.

dark fishes

dark fish

The subterranean aspects of house cleaning take you into the dark waters where sometimes dark fishes swim unseen in the murk.  Okay, I guess that’s a mixed metaphor unless I have a koi pond in the house — oh wait — I do.   I do have a koi pond in the house.  I have many koi ponds in the house.  I should count them sometime. But as I was saying …

House cleaning is like dreaming, and certain images — when you find them behind this or that item dredged up from the general disorder — take on renewed significance.  I know that as I sift through things, I will find used ideas, and some new-to-me ideas — even though they are really my ideas — and yet my old ideas are like hand-me-downs from my past self to Present Tense Me.

Well, anyway suffice it to say that house cleaning is such a creative endeavor that you wonder why you don’t do it more often — except for the realization that it was the separation in time that gives the old ideas their new power.

House cleaning is an amazing experience.  Try it.  Marie Kondo says we will be transformed.


the kitchen chaos


kitchen drawingThe view between the arching flower stems is what caught my attention, but afterwards I tried to put as much stuff of the chaos onto the page, knowing that parts of it would be out of proportion.  I decided to tackle something that I figured would be impossible really to depict accurately, especially in the time I was allotting.

The dark light of an overcast spring day made the (ad)venture doable.  So off and on I’ve been gazing at a jumble of things on the kitchen counter. (Remind me I need to clean that counter.)  It would be an interesting motif to do at night too with the overhead yellow of interior light casting down on the objects in that way that Bonnard taught us to love.

I’d love to do the view from the arching flower stems again in the future.  I’ll need more flowers.  These have already surpassed their prime.

thoughts, words, but no picture

I believe in opposites (a thing and its foil) as a good principle for learning.

crying gal
Updated with a picture: there’s no use crying over Negative Space.


My first drawing of the still life naturally focused on the objects. You see the stuff. You draw the contours around the stuff. But I was wondering now if maybe I’d get a better handle on the idea of the painting by looking more closely at the negative spaces. The only problem is that there are no negative spaces to look at — or maybe it’s ALL negative spaces ever since I disassembled the still life.

It’s a small room. Anyway, I didn’t want to be too dependent on the actual still life this time. And I wanted to travel in hero Pierre Bonnard’s shoes a bit.  More about memory.

I guess now’s a good time to look at Bonnard again with the negative spaces particularly in mind.

I just wrote a post about that sort of thing – the spaces between spaces — a day or so ago. That’s probably why I’m thinking about it now. I was looking at the sketch for the still life and wondering how it would be to think about everything that I wasn’t thinking about when I drew it. The task is greatly complicated by the absence of the actual still life!

Nonetheless (never one to be deterred) there are other ways to think about the spaces between things, even when drawing from memory. I can put parts of the still life together temporarily. I can also just have a whack at drawing the stuff between the stuff (even from imagination) and see what new stuff emerges.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

first things

But what approach to teaching is most likely

101_8725 (2)to help people learn to draw accurately?  I’m thinking that I should adopt some of the strategies that I know contribute to realism. These are truly things that I sensed myself from looking at paintings. I didn’t learn theses ideas in a class or from a book, though I sometimes encountered similar ideas in those places too — which is perfectly logical since true ideas will occur to independent observers simply because they are true.

Think about that next time you’re trying to figure something out.  You’ve got your own logic machine sitting there on top of your neck.

There were always things that I did — for instance I knew that you have to sort out the large forms first. I put local color down as simplicity first (if it looks like green, use green, then adjust).  I knew that some things can be accessed as contour and some things are only with great difficulty understood through line. I find that tonality and masses are the easiest way to quickly summarize a scene.

I want to reconsider these ideas. I’d like the force of the ideas to be able to impress itself upon me anew — as though I were noticing something for the first time. For it’s not obvious that the large forms are anything specific.  Actually the large form is an idea within an idea. Yes, the large form is the thing to be sorted out first because the large form will take up most of the page (or the canvas), but of what does “the large form” consist? That’s the other reason why it comes first, because one is figuring out what “it” is. That choice can be pliable, can be different things visually at different times. Perceptually it’s “what you notice now.”  Deciding that “this” is the large form verses “that” makes all the difference in the world as to how the painting will proceed.

Things in a painting are not identical to things in life. Things in a painting are what we see. They are percepts.

A painting is not identical to its subject matter.  A painting is an idea about the subject matter, a way of thinking about it, seeing it. Emotions might be present also, but they aren’t part of “the painting” until they have a shape.  So that shape is the thing. Any subject might be conceptualized many different ways. The same motif can be rethought many times. That’s why I’ve been able to repaint the same things again and again and have them turn out differently over successive efforts.

It goes back to the original meaning of abstraction in art. It’s difficult to illustrate “the big idea” at the start of any picture. The illustration above is random, from the grab bag of things.

The notion about “mistakes” — whenever art teachers are relentlessly concerned with avoiding mistakes — alleging that the differences between what you want and what you got occur because you didn’t get it right — they imply that you should know what you want before you see it. (Obviously it’s often true that a mistake is a mistake.) But invention isn’t about “getting it right.” Not in that sense. It’s about making an image that has — when all is said and done — certain qualities that hold it together and make it into something that’s like a world unto itself.

Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.  I think that’s a good analogy for art (minus the slapstick and the potential for injury).  One is looking for a fine mess and a way of getting into it.

certain shapes & places

101_8706 (2)

Certain places mesmerize me. I go back to them again and again — figuratively, imaginatively.  I don’t even have to be there. Sometime about the motif, the shapes, the colors I see and the ones I imagine have a hold on me.

This drawing measures about 20 x 25 inches. It’s one of several versions of this motif that I’ve done. There’s at least four versions of different sizes. I was going through stacks of oil pastel drawings and found this one unfinished and resumed working on it. I’ll probably fiddle with it a bit more before I frame it.

The cropped horizon puts the sky on the bottom of the picture.  I’m thinking about the oval contours of the masses of foliage and the contours of clouds and the confusion where the things meet their reflections, enchanted by the world that floats on the rippled surface of water.

after Rubens

I’m always looking for ways to trick myself into drawing.  One thing that I’ve found helpful is to use those occasions when you are naturally off guard.  For instance, late at night is a good time for fooling yourself into taking drawing chances — especially if you are tired.  You tell yourself — I did this only last night and it worked excellently well — you say to yourself, “Just one more drawing, and I’ll hurry.”  Contained are two effective hypnotic suggestions:  “just one more drawing” becomes “why make a big deal when it’s just one drawing among many” and “I’ll hurry” means “whatever mistakes I make I can blame on the hour.”  These are good incantations for removing qualms.  And once you are drawing qualm-free, sometimes you become free enough to learn new things.

I started this drawing after Rubens (above).  It’s nearly one-to-one in relation to the image in the book I used, and this old book is printed all in black and white.   I started lazily, but as even just minutes creeped by — it was nearly midnight –fatigue started tugging at me. So I decided to step up the pace, until finally I raced through things that ordinarily I might have decided I didn’t even have to draw — like the buttons and do-dahs on the bodice of her dress.

Scribbling fast lines and making instanteous impressions of the buttons and pearls — just tossing them down wherever it seemed like they belonged (point and shoot drawing) was exhillerating.

What a great thing to do right before going to bed.  It’s a wonder that I didn’t dream all night long of pearls in scribbles.

variations on a Gabrielle theme

I drew blogosphere friend Gabrielle Bryden during her rainy day sabbatical in far away Australia.  While her blog was quiet, I made some little portrait drawings based upon a youthful photo she posted.

Though they were all drawn using the same photo, each one is a little bit different from the others.   These differences that occur, these variations, are what I call “invention.”  Obviously there’s an element of error involved in the variations since if I was just drawing the image directly, every version would look just like the others, and all the versions would be copies of the photo!

Sometimes those kinds of differences trouble artists who are chasing a realistic effect, and they used to bother me too!  But I came to realize that if the drawing is good then the differences from the source don’t matter.  Moreover, all these changes lead to different ways of seeing and understanding the image.

So though there’s one photo I don’t have only one Gabrielle, I have several!  And each is a bit different from the others.

Musings on confidence, 4

I am discussing ideas from Mona Brookes’s inestimable book “Drawing with Children.”  The first part of the discussion can be found HERE.

Skipping ahead in regard to Mona Brookes’s statements meant to help her readers gauge their confidence, I move along to consider this one:  “People who can’t draw realistically, with accurate shading and correct proportion, aren’t real artists.”    In the context of her book, Mona Brookes offers this statement as an example of false standards that discourage beginners.  The implication is that only realism counts as “art.”

In my youth the flip-side of this was more the rule.  I began learning to draw naturalistically from adolescence, but when I went to college I found that among the professors it was axiomatic that “real art” wasn’t realistic.  Drawings that depicted things, regardless of the quality of the drawing, were uniformly dismissed as “illustration,” a term that was used unequivocably as a term of derision.

Happily for me, I was well rooted in my own preferences.  My rule was to do what I liked.  This wasn’t a stylistic rule.  It was simply my habit.  I was a spoiled only child.  What is the point of drawing if you are only drawing according to the dictates of everybody else?  Most artists could stand to learn a thing or two from us spoiled only children.

Even if the professors had been right, and it was manifestly clear that they were not, what would have been the point in my doing their ideas of “modern art” if I didn’t like it?  Who put them in charge, anyway?   Why am I doing something if it has no meaning for me?  One professor went so far as to say we had permission to do something-or-other because they are doing it in New York.

Well, let them do what they like in New York.  I live in Maryland.  Pshaw!