I paint the koi from photographs

I paint my koi from photographs. It would be an interesting experiment to do them entirely from life. Many years ago I painted from life almost exclusively, and back when I decided that I would be an artist, when I was trying to learn what I thought of as being the foundation of art, I worked from life.  I’m glad I did.  The habits I gained have worn well.  But later on, I found that certain subjects did not fit into an approach devant le motif.  Indeed, it became a kind of lesson in art history too — to become more aware of all the various kinds of artifice employed to create seeming “life likenesses” over the centuries.

The koi was something I wanted to do to explore abstraction in the wake of my renewed love for the work of Californian Richard Diebenkorn (one of my favorite 20th artists).  I found something that was very perceptual and which had a lot of distortion built into it, but which was of course as “real” as one might ever desire.  Yet I soon realized that I needed the photograph for practical reasons (the koi pond was not convenient to my home).  But I also soon found that the photograph interprets the image so thoroughly that many of the effects I found most interesting could be achieved by no other means. 

The camera stops time.  In some of my photographs (I had no idea what I was doing, by the way), the water was frozen.  Planes of the water’s structure were caught and carved out of their constant fluidity.  The amazing shape of the water as it moves was there to draw — something that I cannot see with the naked eye. 

Then the fish, also, were alterred in interesting ways.  In some photos the fish are stretched out as they swim through the exposure, the exaggeration of their shapes simulating something of their movement.

Happily I found that the photograph was amenable to interpretation as readily as the real place.  I began by drawing the photos very faithfully (I thought), but my own habits of vision interpolated something that wasn’t strictly there.  One introduces “distortions” that arise from longing and attention.  So I was in effect synthesizing the experience in ways parallel to what I would do when drawing from life.  Only the photograph opens up a world not visible to ordinary sight.
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The abstraction and the free gesture

There are so many ways of painting a thing.  That’s what the real abstraction of art is about.  As you are drawing, as you are noticing your subject, your attention takes you to qualities that someone else might not notice — or might not notice with the same emotion that you feel.  As your gaze ranges over the image, caught in the attraction of what matters to you, you are reinterpreting the life that you see.  Your being held captive in the subject gives it meaning — it reveals the meaning it holds for you.

The choice of subjects, the choice of how to see the subject, these are very personal things.  Many artists paint the same subjects, and sometimes a convention takes hold and the paintings will be similar.  This isn’t necessarily bad.  Conventions, traditions, can be very rich.  They can be ennobling.  Sometimes they enlarge ideas.  Many great artists chose to work in styles that were broader than their personal territory.  The great English landscape painter Turner made many landscapes in imitation of earlier masters like Claude Lorraine.  However, the reverse is also true: sometimes imitation of a style can become too conventional — so much that it conceals rather than reveals feeling and life.

But to let yourself be simply alive before the subject, to let your thoughts range where they will, to allow the subject itself (such as the swift koi) determine what the meaning will be — this is a wonderful way of losing oneself — and of finding oneself — in art.

Then painting is like music.  And it just goes over us and through us and carries us along with it.

These first blocked-in forms are a simple melody that I hum to myself: the music’s first notes.

More Fish Face

I remembered what it was that I loved about painting the koi — the abstractness.  Everybody paints these things differently.  Other koi painters love detail.  But I had looked to the koi as a subject in my first koi painting because I wanted something that was abstract yet represented something.  I like to paint stuff.  And koi are great stuff!

And the faces.  I find the abstractness in the small parts of the painting.  Maybe when they are finished, I’ll have represented them whiskers and all… who knows?  But this playing around with planes of color — and all the delicious difference of a color that is a nuance warmer or yellower or something-or-other-er than its surroundings — all that play of paint just delights me like a kid with a crayon box.

This, friends, is why I became a painter!

Feeling Catty

Sometimes (as now) a blog is a good place to gripe.  Imagine me on the other side of your fence.  You ask me how I’m doing, so I decide to give you an earful.  (Nice weather we’re having, though.)

Yesterday I saw a spread in a North Carolina newspaper (I’m still here, but should be getting home soon I hope).  Anyway, it was a whole page devoted to art events.  It consisted almost entirely of photographs.  One particularly caught my attention, and if it didn’t bring out the nicest side of my personality — well, perhaps I can be forgiven.

A fashionably dressed young man was posed sitting in a wingback chair.  Behind him stood his even more elegantly dressed and very attractive wife.  The two were pictured inside the premises of what the paper said was a “cutting edge” gallery in town.  And to one side, one could partly make out portions of the young man’s “art.” 

My first thought was “congratulations to him for what must obviously be some exceptional marketing skills.”  My second less kind thought bubble was: “too bad he can’t paint worth a damn.” 

It grates on my nerves (might as well be honest over here at the fence) that I feel an unseemly bit of disgust at a young artist-in-quotes getting this kind of attention when quite clearly (to me at least) his “work” doesn’t merit it.  Work.  Geeze.  It was the old cliche of “I could do that” and then some.  Anyone could do what he does.  Take heart all ye beginners!  That’s assuming his “work” has anything in it worth emulating.

Few of us get our pictures in the papers. (Didn’t I just moments ago say artists are shy?)  I’ve been in the newspaper once, but in my case, thank goodness, I actually had to compete with my painting for attention.  We were posed together like sisters.  But even then, it was the subject matter of my painting that got the attention not the art of my painting.  I’m still waiting on the art thing … I’ll let you guys be the first to know when my ideas are getting the publicity.

So, why does one feel a grudge?  Sour grapes?  I don’t think so.  It bugs me not because the young man is doing well.  It bugs me that he is doing well when so many more deserving artists are being ignored.  It bugs me his not having to pay any dues.  More than that — it bugs me that he evidently has no interest in the dues.  I would never have consented to have myself and my painting prominently displayed in a newspaper if my paintings looked like his.  Sometimes it is meet to be demure.

The whole point of art is the art.  The artist is the first and chief beneficiary of that, let’s be honest.  What you learn in looking at the world, what you learn in making the true attempt to record life (regardless what your level of ability), what you get from the act of seeing and drawing, all those things become products of your mind, parts of your soul.  They compose the memories you will carry around with you in life.  They are hardly trivial!

But what, I ask you, is the point of anyone’s striving when the trivial attempts are trumpeted abroad? 

Well, what you see is what you get.  Quite literally.  Though the papers be filled with the cheap and easy products of fake effort, no one who really loves art should ever lose heart.  What you see is what you get.  And the seeing of it — that’s life — that’s the living of it.  In art you can live ideas.

Art is not for the faint of heart.  If it matters to you, go blindly down the road.  Just do it.  (Not like a shoe commercial, but for real.)

Meanwhile, here at the fence, do you think we’re likely to get any rain?

Second Resume Bullet:  I griped to my neighbor and drew a picture of an annoyed cat.

Ugh! Writing a Resume

Writing a resume always throws me for a loop.  I suppose it affects most people that way.  But I think artists have an especially hard time of it.  For starters, it’s been my experience that artists like to talk up their work in inverse proportion to its merits.  The best artists I know are mostly shy, and the prospect of self-promotion is almost painful.  They are perfectly comfortable, mind you, discussing art in general terms — or even in explaining the narratives behind their own pictures — or their opinions about various art related topics.  The best artists I know are experts in art and have quite a lot to say about it and share their expertise generously.

But that’s a lot different from writing a resume or doing other kinds of promotions.  Whenever I do promotion, it’s like slipping out of my skin and becoming another person.  I try to pretend that I’m someone else looking at the paintings, and I try to “hype them up” a little based upon what various audiences seem to want or believe.  (Hope my target audiences aren’t listening.)

Perhaps “hype” is not the right word.  Let’s just say that I’ve come to recognize that my pictures may have different uses to people than what I originally intended, and I’ve learned to respect those other points of view as having equal validity — that art is “in the eyes of the beholder” as a practical matter.  So I inject humor into my advertising in regard to pictures that were never intended to be humorous.  Or I point out the fact that the pictures make bold design statements, although “interior design” was never a passing thought in my mind.

Mostly (as here) I try to help people enter the realm of visual meaning and metaphor — which goes much more truly to the heart of what I intend when I paint.  But sometimes the more serious message is not the most effective one.

I find that there’s an enormous difference between marketing paintings and marketing the artist.  My resume problems belong to the latter category.  Actually when it comes to the paintings themselves, I’ve never had a collector once ask me where I went to school or what grants I may have received.  They want to know things about the subject matter of the painting.  Their attention is fastened entirely upon what they see and how it makes them feel, and they don’t seem to have the least idle curiosity about my background — which is wonderful.  That’s as it should be.

However, all the things that the collector could care less about are exactly the things that one needs to address in a resume —  with dates, places, and details.  Half the time, I cannot even remember when I worked on a painting, not merely in regard to ones I painted years ago, but even as concerns ones I have painted recently.  Often I forget what I’ve worked on in any given year.  Often I work on certain pictures over the course of several years — for perhaps as long as five years.

  My “real” resume is a lot like Cezanne’s.  I’ve exhibited about 5 times in shows that were beautiful but unknown.  And, yeah, it’s okay to toss around the names of the big guys.  Cezanne’s resume when he was living is the one to have.  It’s all about working.  His life and his work were of one piece, and he just got up each morning and did it.

But, us — we gotta have resumes.  Alas!

New Resume Bullet:  During the last five minutes, I drew a little vase that sits on my table with a pen.  Took a digital photo of it.  Posted it to my blog. 

Word verses Image

During my absence from my blog I did continue writing.  I’m a fanatical journal writer — so much so that I’ve begun to think of my journals as my “brain,” and I’d be hard pressed to even think if I couldn’t write a lot of my ideas down.  Writing seems like the only way of making thoughts become real.  Perhaps that’s because I’m otherwise rather badly organized and prone to forgetfulness.

Anyway, writing is so habitual for me that I’ve wondered sometimes if writing isn’t really what I should be doing instead of painting.  Then it hit me.  One reason I don’t do art when I’m “between places,” as I’ve been for over a month now, is that I always seem to need something to actually look at when I work.  I’ve never been one of those artists who doodles, or who dreams things up in imagination.  I like to have a subject of some kind sitting right in front of me.  I’m an observer.  I draw what I see.  It might be a combination of things.  It might be sometimes a real object, sometimes a photograph, sometimes a drawing that I look at and record.  But it’s always something.  I want vision to be rich, immediate, a real-time sensation from eye to brain.

So, maybe it’s time I branched out a little.  I often advise others to try new skills and get out of the comfort zone.  Here’s an instance where maybe I should take some of my own advice.

The image at the top of this post is one of a series of large paintings by American artist Jennifer Bartlett.  Given that it’s a painting of little pieces of paper with notes jotted on them, it illustrates my theme of the tug-a-war between words and images.  She attacked it pretty directly.  She did paintings of writing.  It’s from her series 24 Hours Air.

Back at my Post

The difficult thing about writing a blog is that if something comes up that prevents you from working, there’s no one else to take over temporarily.  I’ve got no staff.  The interruption in my life that prevented me from blogging has also kept me from painting.  And whenever I go a long spell without working, I find myself wondering if I should continue as a painter.  After all, most people in their jobs have regular pay and routine expectations about what they’re supposed to do.  But as an artist (so far at least) my pay is most irregular and my work routine — which often offers great expanses, oh yes, of delicious freedom — is definitely not routine.  The boredom of the routine is absent, but so are the comforts.  It takes discipline to keep plugging along powered by one’s own will alone, and given that the direction is often unclear — well, it can be daunting sometimes.

I got a comment from a reader that blended with my morning thoughts as I resume this blog.  His comment made me realize again that whenever a diligent artist gives up, it leaves the field wild open for all the poseurs (and the art world’s got tons of those).  So, it becomes almost a duty to keep going if at all possible — not for one’s own sake alone but for the dignity of one’s profession.

I haven’t even been near my studio in a month.  Looking at this photo of one of my paintings on the wall, seeing it “in progress,” reminds me of periods spent painting.  I have no idea yet what this “tree” is about, this tree that doesn’t quite look like a tree.  It’s big.  It’s sloppy.  I’ve repainted huge areas without solving the puzzle of what it ought to look like.  It’s structured and ill-defined all at once. That’s a lot of “almost” to have to deal with.  Yet you get a hunch sometimes, so you follow it.  It’s a very private and tentative adventure.  Yet it’s genuine.

Yet the feelings that accompany seeing this image are wonderfully nostalgic.  Sometimes you begin something and have no idea where it will lead, whether it will ever make any sense, and you have no guarantee at all that the whole thing isn’t just a waste of time.  Sometimes you’re tempted to just give it away. But you don’t.  You keep working.  And one reason you keep working is that it’s fun.

I am back at my “post,” a word that I now find has many connotations.  I’m returning to duty.  Art is a fine calling.  And so one soldiers on because that’s just what you have to do.  “Soldiering” might seem like a big metaphor for my humble calling.  But I remember a particular soldier as I write, and the memory recalls me to my duty.  And sometimes it’s the small duties that we particularly need to keep.

Sleeping and Dreaming

This drawing of a sleeping child is a study for a painting.  I have made so many drawings of this face and her hand and this pose!  I have tried so many times to dream her dreams.  Drawing is partly a way of entering into other worlds.  Like a novelist creates characters and actions for them to be living, an artist has to create the whole pictorial world of the painting.  But unlike the novelist’s, the artist’s world is one scene only that forever plays again and again before the spectator’s gaze.

There are actions in paintings, but they are frozen and stilled.  I love the stillness of art.  I love the stillness of a scene that never changes, of a child who forever dreams, of a summer day that is eternal and always wonderful and bright.

[Top of the post:  Study of a Sleeping, Dreaming Child, by Aletha Kuschan]

My little trees in a row

On a bright spring day of this century, I drew this row of young trees.  They are clothed in pink veils of flower-before-the-leaf.  And much of the silvery bark (that will soon disappear in leaves) is still visible and bright.  Their own branches and the variegated greens of more distant trees mingle on the page.  You can sense the space between near and far, yet everything is depicted in spare lines and haphardly rubbed tones.  It’s all very abstract.  Yet it’s all very “there.”

Whenever I draw something like this, it’s like taking the whole morning home with me and having it forever as a keepsake.  Spring morning-to-go!

[Top of the post:  Row of Trees in Spring, by Aletha Kuschan]