I have been looking for butterflies without much success. We used to have a garden that attracted butterflies, but not this year. And the few I have happened upon accidentally have flitted away before I could fetch my camera. They are known for their flitting.
However, in the absence of actual butterflies, I see no reason why one couldn’t invent one’s own. So now I’m hunting things that are like butterflies and the first items that have answered my search are these two leaves that are early in their transformation, anticipating autumn.
Like the inventor in The Artist of the Beautiful, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s haunting short story, I’m out to create my own do-it-yourself flitter critter. My version of the quest is less haunting and romantic, more optimistic and can-do in spirit. But mine is also less actual in yearning for painting is illusory from the outset — my quest more so, is unreal two-fold, an illusion of an illusion.
One of the ways that I get ideas for new works is from chance occurrence. While I was looking through image files, I found these two pictures side by side — rather as they appear here. The image on the left is a notebook drawing of the koi. The picture on the right is a scene from an old studio where a large drawing was nearly complete.
Seeing the two works together like this, the one on the left could almost seem to be the same size as the one on the right — and that gives you an idea how it would look enlarged. Making large works is not merely about enlarging small works. The large picture ought to seem as though it is simply “the right size” but seeing this small drawing in this context does suggest that it might look good on a much larger scale.
The process could as easily work the other way. You could see some huge painting in a museum and realize that it offers you a subject that you could do on a smaller scale. The key, whatever the circumstance, is to be open to new ideas.
Ten times is probably a good number for deciding if you like a thing. And a hundred times is surely a good number for mastering it (or for beginning its mastery).
Degas thought you should repeat things the way that a ballerina repeats her dance steps or a musician practices a musical figure. You gain skill and sureness with each repetition. But sometimes you also gain ideas. The differences between one repetition and another can sometimes lead to new ideas. Thus it’s a source of invention in art.
“Il faut refaire dix fois, cent fois le même sujet.” You must redo — ten times, one hundred times — the same subject.
Certainly one hundred times is excessive if you don’t love the thing. But ten times is a way of gaining skill. And ten times offers enough repetitions to get to know the subject in a preliminary way — to learn it. With ten repetitions you find out if you do love the motif — whether or not it’s the right motif for you.
And if after you’ve done the subject ten times, you wish to explore it further then you know that your love is deep.
You could do ten versions of this, and ten versions of that, and discover through the process what kinds of things matter to you. Somewhere in that process you will find that the subject holds deeper meaning (even if you don’t know what that meaning is). At that point you want to plunge in and really explore its every aspect. Exploration leads to invention.
I have certain subjects that I return to again and again. I did not begin them with the idea that they would become my particular venues. I went into the subject innocently. But I was heeding some call — even if I was unaware.
I am not sure how many subjects I have — some I’m keenly aware of — the koi, flowers, seashells, certain kinds of landscape. If I did one hundred of each — GOODNESS — that would be four hundred right there!
Degas is a strict task master! But this is all stuff that one loves. It would be wonderful to do one hundred repetitions of each subject!
Today I’m beginning the Big Tidy Campaign of 2017 and part of tidying is taking inventory. I begin this inventory with an inventory of my thoughts — and of my fishes!
— elemental themes appeal to me. They beckon like dreams. I do a lot of traditional kinds of pictures — and I love the discipline of tightly focused imagery like a vase of flowers — very basic — takes you to the foundations of seeing — it is to pictorial art what the sonnet is to poetry. But I also venture periodically into stream-of-consciousness kinds of imagery.
Sometimes I hear that call again. I am not sure what sort of thing I’ve a yen for just now, but winter’s long nights and cold clear days are great for firing up the imagination.
Not knowing what’s next, I’m watchful for ideas. In just such moods I find that ideas arrive. Someone told me once that I needed to pick a theme and create a consistent portfolio, and I am NEVER — DOING — THAT. I follow the river current of thought because I know from experience that it leads to good places.
You go off in some tangent, but later you find that the wild explorations allow you to bring back knowledge — knowledge of a sort that you can apply again even to the traditional things — to even the simple vase of flowers.
Everything you learn enriches everything that you know already. So be bold, be daring.
Contrary to the center of interest is the periphery of interest.
I was reading a list of forms of cognitive bias and ANCHORING caught my attention. I found it defined as “the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered.” It hinders decision making — and hence invention — by getting a person stuck at square one.
In art, it’s certainly true, that the artist who is too focused on the “center of interest” (or as I like to call it the “nexus of focal attention” or the “convergence of visual acuity” or the “intersection of visual collision” or sometimes as simply “the point of no return”) — as I was saying: such an artist might fail to see the forest because of the humongous big tree blocking his view when his whole face is covered with its leaves.
I realize I’m babbling — maybe ranting — but I did say that I was turning my blog into a sort of diary. And in a “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want to” sort of way, I permit myself an occasional rant from time to time.
I don’t like the concept of “a center of interest.” Does it show? I file it under cognitive bias. I’m glad to see it has a name, anchoring.
The cure is to get the attention moving around again. I like natural attention, myself, that’s my personal preference. Letting your mind move around, willy nilly, as its wont. But if one’s brain has gotten sucked into the vortex, whether that vortex is at the center or somewhere else in the picture, the cure for the bias is to fasten the attention somewhere else. You’ve got to move it around — diffuse it somewhat, forcibly, if need be.
In my notes, I envisioned a grid — a desperate grid for the really hard cases — and inside each square of the grid you examine that portion of the picture to see what beauties it holds. And no I don’t stop there.
Then you shift the grid a little and you have new passages, and you gaze into those also. And thus the whole image is like a matrix with many doors. Such a picture (obviously this represents an ideal) is like a shimmering tapestry of decisions and observations.
In ordinary time, the simple habit of following your thoughts in the order in which they occur is good enough at last — as a remedy against art books that posit all kinds of rules, the most insidious of which is the center of interest.
I give it other names to diminish its charm. If we call the nexus of focal obsession by its other names — such as, the vortex of visual obsequiousness, then we avoid its becoming stronger by means of the “availability cascade,” the tendency of oft-repeated messages to be accepted as true simply because they are oft repeated.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
but I think most people have difficulty figuring out what they got right. Recognizing mistakes is often easy. (Making them is easy too!) When a picture has a lot of mistakes, how do you discover what you did right? How do you marshal skill to get things right, to recognize and correct mistakes, and to go forward toward new decisions? Sometimes it gets sticky.
In the picture above, which is a large practice cartoon for a painting idea, I have wanted to emulate Pierre Bonnard since I’ve loved his art for nearly as long as I can remember. Bonnard’s work is chaotic, “naïve,” fuzzy, idiosyncratic. His pictures are filled with features that could easily be categorized as mistakes. He made an art of mistake. So it seems unlikely that I’m going to get very far along his path if I assiduously strive to draw everything correctly.
How do you achieve the mistake that is art? How do you recognize the mistake that is a mistake? Context is everything. For most people, mistakes are things they wish to avoid. In the art that I’m addressing the mistake is a goal to be achieved because I’m seeking the kind of perfect mistake that is expressive, that uses exaggeration to reach a truth that cannot be gotten by following the path of precision.
Since this is a working drawing, made solely for the purpose of figuring something out, I taped a page over top of an area that was “more mistaken” than what I was seeking. Afterwards I continued integrating the new sheet into the existing image.
It’s a back burner picture right now since I’m busy with other things. I bring it out of the closet to think about what mistakes are and why we must make them if we want to learn new skills, and why sometimes they transform into marvelous discoveries if we just plow forward.
I also want to address the idea of appreciation.
I love the criss cross shadow cast by the compotier. The criss cross opening on the compotier basin is just barely indicated in this drawing — by some hatching beside one of the apples. I loved seeing this feature in the still life set up. I loved drawing it quickly and crudely in this drawing. I realized afterwards that I had hit some Bonnard pay dirt, since his art is full of hatching and squares of various sorts. And my still life was full of them too in ways I hadn’t noticed when I put it together. (Give your subconscious the respect it deserves.)
I can draw, I can draw! I’ve supplied various examples at this blog to demonstrate that fact to myself and to others. I did so just so I could grant myself the freedom to make a bushel basket full of mistakes if I want. Just look at how pretty the colors are, the marks as marks.
I don’t mind telling you that drawing this image was fun. And it’s not finished or anything, I just abandoned it because something else came up. I’ll go back to it eventually I suspect, if the past is any indication of the future. Look at how freely I drew some of this stuff. Look at the wonderful way that the crayon scumbles, light over dark. The texture of the paper is definitely a factor.
Since I’m emulating Bonnard, I include some of his painting for comparison.
Mine is a large drawing. I had to bend over to draw the bottom, reach up to do the top, move the thing around on the easel to get to this and that part. It’s physical.
Things are the wrong sizes relative to each other. Ellipses don’t work. The angle of vision is confusing. I have no idea where I would be standing to see it. Things are cartoonish. (I love the flowers.) Some of the colors are wonderful. The whole thing has a clunkyness that I sometimes love, sometimes hate.
I’m praising the good things about my picture because I think that’s what you should be doing as well (praising the good things in my pictureoops — I mean, praising the good things in YOUR pictures).
Another Bonnard, this one with a compotier:
Having standards will make you strive, and that’s a good thing. Developing appreciation nourishes your spirit. It’s hard to persist in a complicated project if you are often berating yourself. For those reasons, I give myself full reign to enjoy the pictures I make. I like drawing. I like this kind of inventive drawing, which is very different from setting up a still life and painting it directly. I began a new thing and gave myself a challenge. And I post these images here because they have a lot of mistakes in them. To succeed fully enough mistake has to be siphoned away or transmuted until just invention remains.
That’s a high wire act because people like different things. (Some artists and art lovers hate Bonnard.) At long last there’s no authority you can turn to that can assure you that you took the correct path. The definitions of success and mistake are amorphous. But if I succeed according to my own idea the picture will find an inner logic. I don’t know yet what the result will look like, but I am encouraged — in all my pictures, not just this one — to go forward toward finding that logic.
A detail of a large Bonnard still life below, notice the wonderful stripes:
Information about the painting above is available HERE.
I’ve written about mistakes but still haven’t identified the most significant mistakes of my picture. As I look at it now, its problems begin with the large design. Putting in more information will help sort out what the large compositional problems are (the whole lower left of the picture is still blank, for instance, though it’s supposed to feature a design on the table cloth). Until the additional stuff is there, it’s impossible to judge how the parts will relate to each other. And after I put more stuff in, it’s possible I might have to take some of it out again (which is the reason for making the practice cartoon in the first place).
All the figuring out what is a mistake is something I leave for another occasion. For now, I’m just focusing on what I like because people don’t pay enough attention to what is right when they are busy seeing “mistakes.”
Green and yellow, above, and energetic lines, colors that push up against each other: these are things I like.
A friend said, “One of the biggest lessons to learn in art is to proceed fearlessly and to look at things in the light of making them more right.”
Why do we allude continually to our mistakes or to those things we perceive as mistakes? There is always the disconnect between intention and consequence. Though one uses the word “mistake,” and it carries all sorts of negative connotations, yet we need the word, we need to make mistakes, the mistakes are just the trace of however much striving an artist went through to get to a certain place.
You can guarantee that you’ll never make mistakes. It’s very simple. Attempt only easy things. As long as you do only those things you know you can do, you’ll never make a mistake — or hardly ever. Attempt that which you know to be challenging and you’ll be always making mistakes. And yet you will be always doing something new, always gaining skill and steadiness.
I have learned over the years to suspend judgement about what constitutes a “mistake.” If you press on, continually working to sharpen both your perception and your skill in putting things “where you think they are supposed to go” then interesting things can happen. There’s some editing in art — as in writing — that can wait. It’s like a wine, you have to allow it some time to cure. I draw, I put things aside to work on other drawings, and later I look at things to decide what’s what.
In any case, you cannot escape alterations between what you thought you wanted to do and what afterwards you discover you did, so you might as well plunge ahead and keep learning.
You have to find out what works for you — sometimes down to the very fine detail. Should you stay up at night and draw into the late hours? Should you get to bed early and rise with the dawn? Do you need coffee to get started or a very cold bottle of water? What kinds of notebooks are appealing? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend a day going round with a small notebook drawing random sights?
Or perhaps you do that all the time, and what you need is to choose some very complex image and work at it relentlessly. Do you work from life? Make drawings from memory? Have you investigated things that artists did in history and apply them to contemporary motifs? Do plans and schedules keep you on track? Or are you the sort of person who needs to feel spontaneous?
Whenever something isn’t working for me, I try something else. Sometimes I just start drawing in medias res because I’ve lost the thread of my ideas. Then I find that just moving my hands jump starts some thought process, like a dream remembered, and I rediscover the thing hidden in my mind.