The Favorite Place

The favorite place is nice in real life, but it’s really marvelous in art — more particularly in the process of portrayal. As the picture of the favorite place unfolds and emerges, the sensation is different than being there walking and enjoying the open air. Imaginatively it’s keener than in life. Or, rather, the life experience that I find so arresting comes about from watching bits of pigment attach to paper. The smears, dabs, scratchings, the contours, hatchings and whatnot are all so lovely.

The materials are beautiful. The colors are beautiful. The experience is so immediate and so close at hand.

Above is a detail of a drawing. The whole drawing measures about 8 x 10 inches. I’m drawing with the marvelous Neocolor1 crayons. What wonderful tools these crayons are!


Finding the Gesture

Work on a painting takes many twists and turns. In the beginning I think about the largest shapes, those passages that will determine the whole painting, its effect, its unity. As a painting progresses each thing gets blocked in, and the most generalized form of each part starts to become gradually more clear.

But as the painting becomes very advanced, especially with a large painting, the question arises as to what the textures and details should look like. The acuity or image resolution is a little different with a large canvas. You can see the paint as paint, and you want all that surface to hold some interest of its own.

To get ideas about the surface of the painting, I turned to Claude Monet. Looking through a book on the waterlily cycle, I decided to make a “scribble drawing” using colored pencils. I chose the pencils simply for convenience, but their distinct difference from paint also adds an interesting complication as I began examining Monet’s gestural marks in a detail of his painting of wisteria.

Drawing with the pencils, I gave myself the liberty to make the broadest, most intuitive and least controlled gestures imaginable. I simply looked at the picture and interpreted it very freely. As you can see I changed the color — the color changes conform more to my own painting, the one that is the subject of my inquiries.

A close up of the drawing reveals how scratchy and random the lines are. They have their own sort of material beauty, similar in kind to Monet’s patches of color, but unique to the colored pencil. (Each medium has its own peculiar beauty.)

The scribble drawings (there are others besides the one featured) are a bit distant from the painting in appearance, but they are good practice for thinking about gesture. Though they look different, the gesture of arm, hand and idea are similar to what goes on in the painting. And it’s good to remember that one is not just drawing on the page, but drawing also in the mind.

The images that we make in our memories come back to assist us later on when we paint.

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Strategies for Invention

Making small colored pencil drawings is one of the ways I get ideas for my large paintings. The painting on the easel right now is 48 x 60 inches, and it’s well under way. But figuring out the details of the painting is a problem in invention, particularly as this is not a realist painting. It won’t be finished when it “looks like” the scene because the actual scene no longer exists. However, change can be a good thing. Not being able to revisit the real place offers up a great excuse simply to paint. But even when you’re “just painting,” you still need to get your ideas from somewhere. So I use the qualities of the various media as suggestions for surface details. My aim is to make the painting into something like a giant drawing, so that it might also possess all the freedom that drawings have.

So I make many drawings. Through much drawing, the forms of the image begin to fix themselves in my memory. And the drawing media, by virtue of their own innate qualities of beauty, offer something to “imitate,” since imitation is always one component of painting.

Small colored pencil drawings, like the ones above which measure smaller than 8 x 10 inches, are one way to think about the image. Neopastel (a Caran d’Ache product) offers another method on a slightly larger scale. The following Neopastel drawings measure about 18 x 24 inches. The larger drawings are getting closer to the gesture range of the large painting.

As you can see, I have taken the image apart and once components are separated this way they really do look more and more “abstract.” It’s good to remember that the whole surface of a painting matters. Even when you’re striving to produce realism, the details are still just shapes, colors and tones. The composition is the pleasing arrangement of all these bits of the picture even when the part does not directly correspond to something we can name.

The whole painting at present looks like this:

Those flower bunches in the sky need to be connected to the plants. And there’s much tweaking available in the large expanses. Some of the development of this surface really does wend into pure invention. So there’s lots of opportunity to “push paint around” and look for beautiful surfaces.

Ideas for this kind of work can start from small simple beginnings. Making broad gestures with big shapes gets you started and can provide a wonderful meditative way of musing about possibilities.

So if you take up drawing in colored pencils, beware. You never know where it will lead. Better get a supply of large canvas just in case.

In the meantime, enjoy your mark making.