Here’s the chaotic “Cezanne stage” of a little painting of a rocky hillside that I’m working on. It began with coincidence and impulse. I had just finished cleaning a little frame, which I propped against a drawing, just getting the frame out of the way, when I noticed how nicely it cropped the drawing into a new composition. “Why not?” I thought.
I needed a surface. There was an old scrap of canvas, which I taped to a board using old tape (old everything). First round of old tape — the red — didn’t work. So I used silver duct tape over that (hence the intriguing little framed effect).
A random bit of happenstance inspired the composition. So, it’s on the easel now. And the picture is green while outside it’s cold. Between cycles of the furnace, it’s cold inside too! And the weatherman says it’s going to be cold all week. But in my mind, here’s where I am. And here inside my mind … it’s balmy here.
The difficulty one encounters in trying to paint dreams is that often you cannot remember them. Dream memory is exceptionally fugitive. That feature of itself draws in a certain scientific interest (for those who study dreams) because it’s so startlingly different from ordinary perception. While you will most probably forget what you did this morning over the course of a few days, you are most unlikely to forget it seconds after it happens. But how often has one awakened from a dream only to see it seem to disintegrate even as one watches?
Some dreams last in memory and others don’t. Even what distinguishes the one sort of dream from the other is unknown. But while dreams cannot be counted on to furnish stable material for art, the process that one’s mind uses to dream is most probably accessible — to some extent — in a waking state.
I’m searching for some random things to include in certain pictures that are in the works. I say the things are random, but I only mean that they’re random in the way that dream elements often seem to come in bizarre forms. And one thing clearly connects to another as though by some great law of causality. But when you tell the dream to someone, it seems to make no sense at all. I am putting things into pictures just because, and wondering afterwards if the stream of consciousness leads somewhere.
Your dreams, O years, how they penetrate through me! (I know not whether I sleep or wake.) — Walt Whitman, Years of the Modern
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.
It’s partly cloudy indoors. I have these marvelous plans, but I must be patient about realizing them. The weather itself makes one lethargic. A dog is whining again — not the big dog. Now it’s the little dog. The big dog is asleep.
I could fall asleep. It is great sleeping weather. It’s a chore staying awake. It’s one of those grey wet days when Nature persuades you — nearly — that this is what eternity looks like. I could swear that time has slowed down. Physicists should study this phenomenon to learn whether time creeps by more slowly on dismal, damp, grey days.
Well, they would if they could, I guess. But any physicist brought into this situation would feel the effects himself. Sleeping physicists can tell you nothing.
So whence motivation? Where does energy come from? It’s a rabbit. And you pull it out of a hat.
I like to experiment with things. Put the objects on the table, perhaps move them around a little, but not to think about them overly much. Follow the instincts. Set the stuff down and begin. Sometimes I paint the scene fast. The painting above was done rapidly. It’s a very small painting. It’s the size of a postcard. I wanted to see how much I could convey without much fuss. The arrangement was crowded. I think the general sense of it has come through.
Looking at it now, I see how much I borrowed from Matisse without realizing. That’s the kind of influence that’s especially beneficial, when the earlier artist’s thought just seeps silently into your brain. One learns by much looking. We learn about painting from seeing other pictures. And there are so many ways of arranging things, maybe an infinite number.
For some time I have been portraying the objects on my table somewhat randomly as your eye might catch them when you walk into the room and scan the surroundings in an absent-minded way. They are composed and not composed at once. The picture is a composition. It has structure. But the things do not. They are random. The structure that the picture possesses is sleigh of hand. The objects simply are.
Why shouldn’t objects be portrayed haphazardly? Isn’t that how we encounter them? And all the spaces between the things, the strange wonderful interstices, I like to discover those spaces. I feel like I should make them as truthful as possible. I want to get the contours right whenever I can because that’s so much a part of the thing’s identity. The things have identities. Shades of Plato!
Just the top of the teapot peeks over the edge of this picture. That’s where the paper ends. It reminds you that the picture is artificial. The actual world seems not to have edges. But the picture does. So that’s where the objects stop. And the accidental contours of their abrupt conclusions can be fascinating.
I began a little still life from the objects stored on the shelf. They were not set up to be “the still life,” I just store them on the shelf. But each time I look at them, their arrangement beckons. The other day I started a drawing in low light. The photograph below shows the objects but not the lighting which is too slight for my photography.
I love being in a slightly darkened room, drawing things I like. But the rain has taken away so much sun that I cannot work on this any further today.
I even had a still life I was doing from life in sunny light and I haven’t worked on it in weeks. All the still life objects have a layer of dust on them. But as diligent as one would like to be, you cannot fight Nature.
She has set her heart on rain, so rain it will be. Perhaps I should start portraying landscapes of rain.
As for today, and its faintly realized still life, the other thing I like is the arrangement of things as they’re stumbled upon. To discover the composition while making it, while looking at it — while staring over a length of days of idle thought. I picked a sheet of Canson pastel paper. It is the size it is. I had no idea how much of the scene even to include, had no notion where the edges would be. I just began drawing that first sea shell that I particularly love and let the other things gather round it. I didn’t even know where to place the sea shell on the sheet. I just began.
I don’t know what it will all look like when it’s finished. And of course I don’t know when it will stop raining, when the light will come back. This is why it’s good to have many projects. Eventually one will come off.
Abstraction is not always as devoid of subject as it appears. There might be something that looks like this. Lots of other artists have made pictures this one resembles. And it resembles other pictures I’ve made that are pictures of something. So, by following a trail of clues, being a visual detective tracking down myself, I might in time figure out what I was up to. One might in time discover what the other artists were up to as well. If I am on the same wavelength as others, what wave is it?
On the internet once I found a wonderful website set up by two photographers, husband and wife. They took amazing, high resolution photographs of the oddest things — bricks, stones, grasses, tiles, old rusted metal surfaces — anything with texture. Their photographs looked like the most ravishingly beautiful abstract pictures you’ve ever seen. And they invited anyone to use their work for free.
I downloaded lots of their pictures, like a miser at a flea market. Each image seemed more beautiful than the last, and I sat before the monitor for a couple hours, watching each image load and then copying it to use later. My printer could not do the proper homage to their stunning imagery. But I printed out some of the pictures to make a collage. My printer started running out of ink, but I continued printing, letting the vagaries of the machine add a further layer of chance to the mix.
I had cut up some paper bags and glued them together to make a large sheet. Grocery store shopping bags are incredibly strong. Then I glued the prints of the couples’ photographs together into the pattern suggested by the moment. I added a few pieces of gold foil wrappers from Lindt chocolates à la Bonnard, and voilà!
[Top of the post: Collage, La Nuit by Aletha Kuschan, a collage made of borrowed pictures and whimsy]