Versatile medium that it is, acrylic paint can be used on virtually any surface to which it adheres. So all kinds of paper work wonderfully. This study of the fruit bowl is painted (13.5 x 12 inches) on a stiff sheet of smooth watercolor paper. I made the painting to study one detail of the still life table for a painting in progress.
It ended up being a form of “painting therapy,” a way of preventing me from messing up a painting that’s far along in the works via some frustration I was feeling. Better to take the frustration out on a separate drawing — get the painting distress out of the system harmlessly — all while learning more about the motif and making another small painting. Take that, bowl of fruit! You won’t vex me!
Be your own art psychotherapist — confront the art problems on scraps of paper that lie about. Work it out and learn new stuff. What’s not to like ….
What do you do when you don’t know where the line is?
Here’s part of the merit in drawing things from new angles. You have to rediscover some of the fundamental qualities. Shouldn’t that heighten one’s powers of observation?
And the merit of doing studies generally is that you create an occasion for just living in the moment visually. If you let yourself escape the need to have things exact, you gain the chance to strive after making them more exact. I let go of the line in order to find it. I let myself be willing to put it down wrong. And each time you do that you increase the chances of getting it right.
But the other way of finding out the line’s location is to draw with masses instead. I make a broad patch of color with some careless swipes of parallel strokes. I estimate how large a swath of color to make. Afterwards if I get a better sense of one line’s relation to another I venture to draw that contour.
I notice certain mistakes. I decide to leave them be. To remove them makes the thought process too fussy. I just draw over things, if it’s possible. And if it’s not I pursue the features that remain.
The relative sizes and interrelationships of all the things are so complex and intriguing. The precise curve of a line can be very beautiful and interesting to chase.
I have other things on my mind sometimes. But drawing is also escape. Or, it’s as much escape as one is likely to get.
I need something I can take with me into the room where the painting is. I use my computer periodically because that’s where the reference photo for the vase is — once again I’m using a picture from the internet, a vase that I cannot perhaps afford to buy even if it were available. I use my computer until the battery starts sending out alarms that it needs its fainting couch. As it calms and restores itself, I use a drawing while as I block in the vase. Here’s the world’s quickest drawing! –because I need some reference while I put down the first layers of the painting. The vase I’m using this time is white porcelain with roses (see the group below).
I’m going to be painting over layers and changing things as I go so I only need enough to get me started. All the elements of this painting are very exploratory. I paint inside the moment.
The white vase was preceded by the black vase. Lots of vases.
So it’s time to transfer some of the flowers in the newest bouquet, the ones on the aluminum easel, to the painting above it. The painting on the wooden easel is an intermediary stage between me and the really BIG painting.
I’ve been working on this 24 x 18 inch study for a few days in succession.
Jump flowers, into the picture!
And the flowers of the actual bouquet are now kind of spent. Some are a little worn and others have gone entirely limp! But that pretty rose is still firm. It refuses to open, but it still looks like new.
I am redrawing things that are in the painting, reconnecting myself with individual parts of the motif to get myself ready to continue working on it, stitching the parts more securely together — or preparing to do so — since the real discoveries will happen on the painting’s own surface. These are just ideas.
So I redrew the roses and then added the top of the clump of hydrangeas below these roses, just to help myself think about some ways that these two parts might connect. These are the hydrangeas that I drew in the previous post. The drawing measures 14 x 11 inches and depicts the flowers actual size.
It’s gawky and somewhat incoherent, and it’s one of my favorite paintings. I painted it years ago. I had set the blue and white, China creamer on the steps in front of the house, filled it with clover flowers from the yard, and painted it quickly in raking light. It was an impulsive thing to do and involved painting skills I did not possess. (There’s no interior differentiation of light in the shadow, for instance, little sense of space or dimension.) I worked quickly, put in everything I knew how to put there and stopped painting when I ran out of ideas. (No doubt the light had changed dramatically as well.)
I wouldn’t change anything about it. I wouldn’t sell it either. And since I doubt that people will ever be clamoring to buy it, the not selling isn’t really an especially remarkable gesture.
I note that artists are often asking if they should continue working on something or whether they should leave it alone. And on the whole, I have to say, that if you’re asking the question you should keep working. The very fact that you’re asking the question demonstrates that you’re aware of defects in the work that you don’t know how to fix (or are reluctant to fix) but you’re seeking a kind of societal absolution from having to go forward. Isn’t it good enough as it is?
It’s true that there’s a kind of beauty that is spontaneous even when unfinished — or especially because of its being unfinished — something that is poetically evocative because it leaves much to the imagination. However, if you are always hoping to get lucky with happy accidents you never really learn the deliberate skills that can bring something to refinement.
One way of learning skill and to compensate for the disappointment that’s intrinsic to this problem is to redo the same thing several times. Essentially, you take Degas’s advice. When the fear consists in worrying that you’ll screw the picture up, then simply make several of them and spread the risk around among them. One of them ought to turn out decent enough.
You practice the riff just as a musician practices music. You don’t have to do it exactly the same way each time. It can be a theme and variations like Monet haystacks. But the point is that you set yourself a goal and then strive to meet it, rather than setting yourself no goal and hoping that somehow you’ll accidentally fall into a successful painting. As with other things in life, if you have no goal (none, at all) how will you know if you have succeeded? And even if you don’t know what you want, you do at least know of artists whose work you admire, who set some kind of standard into your mind of what good art looks like. You can emulate something even if your own goals are hazy. These exemplars might be as varied as Matisse or Andrew Wyeth, but you do have goals. The question is can you dare to seek your real goals?
If the real goals are too hard, you have to break them down into some sort of constituent parts. Maybe you work on drawing one day, on color some other occasion –on composition, on tonality, or texture, or proportion — or whatever — whenever. You can proceed in baby steps.
That said, I don’t know what goals I had when I painted the still life above. I’m not sure I did have any that were specific, that I could articulate, nor even ones that I could locate in the works of artists I admire. In that instance I ran out of time and happened afterwards to feel a mother’s love for my imperfect off-spring. But in other works, I set myself goals (they are somewhat shadowy but they still exist). The goals do not inhibit spontaneity. Quite the contrary they make it possible. And I work very deliberately toward accurate drawing, deliberate color effects, and I often find that a path toward invention opens up precisely because I am reaching for something high.
Art is expression but it can be discipline too. I’m not talking about the (to my thinking) empty discipline of the punitive plaster cast school of art — the one that says that you have to do a hundred pictures of noses from plaster casts before you can dare to portray even a turnip from nature. I’m not talking about the false discipline of someone who sets artificial obstacles in his own path so that he can afterwards declaim about how many hours he spent perfecting a dry looking painting.
Instead I’m trying to evoke a living kind of discipline, one established in longing, the sort of situation in which you find that you love something very much, enough to strive to get it right.
So these two ideals can sit comfortably side by side. There are times when the first few strokes catch the thing in a way that painting further would only ruin. And there are also kinds of achievement that only arise from persistent work, which will never be got on the cheap. It’s good to leave yourself open to both options: to be willing to work hard and to be ready to recognize the (rare) instance of inspiration when the thing seems to paint itself. And you have to be honest enough with yourself to admit that there’s a huge world of difference between these two kinds of art.
I don’t know how many times I’ve drawn the blue compotier, but I love drawing it and it’s blue corridors hypnotize me every time I look at it anew.
And a hint: I don’t know how to draw either. If we cannot draw as well as Ingres or Durer, we’re not there yet.
[Ingres drawing of a girl in a chair above.]
How you draw with great skill if you don’t know how to draw is that you focus your mind entirely upon what you’re seeing and then let your hand follow your visual thoughts. It takes some daring to follow this path because what you see may not actually find its way accurately into the drawing, and we are oh so cognizant of what other people think, are we not?
[sketch made from a still life by Huysum at the National Gallery of Art above]
The essence of the blind contour is that it trains you to observe more keenly. Let’s say that I’m drawing my still life objects. I notice the various contours. I follow them with antlike thoroughness. (Remember that ants can run; this needn’t be a slow process.) I can notice the contour as a flat silhouette against its background. But maybe there’s a tea pot with paintings of fish swimming across its surface. My eye can jump to those and the ant can follow those silhouettes without having bothered to finish the other one.
Let’s say we’ve got an ant that can jump as well as run. What if you notice a flower at the top of the picture, then a design near the bottom? What if you note that a sinuous line created by the adjacent edges of several different objects seems to go across the whole image? You can draw that. If you are “just looking” you can draw anything and you need not reference whether the feature you’re drawing supports the illusion of the picture. Some things we perceive may actually confuse the illusion of the picture sometimes, in certain contexts. But how does an artist know the worth of visual information unless he tries it out first? You may not even know for a long time what the significance of a line is, or a color, or a form.
You can observe objects and make a drawing that gathers psychological information, that takes you through your subject, that explores its various potentials. When we see the works of great masters in the museum and find their pictures full of an amazing verisimilitude, what we don’t see are the drawings, sketches, studies, pochades and whatnot that directed and supported the form the finished painting would take. Much unseen information lies behind a highly finished painting. In studies, sketches and incidental drawings a contemporary artist can gather his own (or her own) information in the living moment.
What do you want to learn about the things you paint that is separate from a finished painting? Remember too that what you learn is drawn in your mind, drawn with your thoughts. There’s a keenness of perception that is exhilarating in itself. Let yourself have this freedom to roam mentally through the veil of light before your eyes. It has its own great worth as lived experience. And then too, it also teaches you things that cumulatively can find their way into finished works.
To draw with great skill when you don’t yet have the level of skill you desire means that you sometimes develop your perception first. You put aside the schemes of the art classroom (centers of interest and whatnot) and let your mind simply roam while your hand records the path as best it can — as perhaps a blind contour, or better still as simply a brave drawing — one in which the mistakes are let to be what they are. It’s a leap of faith. But recall we said that this ant can jump.
[Ants in a still life by Huysum. Photo credit here.]
The notebook is the place where you can work in the utmost privacy. The pages close, and the drawing escapes the light and hides behind perhaps a hundred veils. While you’re making the drawing, you have a little studio that sits in your lap. You can try out ideas, and no one needs to know. Or you have the option of not trying out ideas. Not trying can be a very fine way to spend time. You can draw the way the fish swim. And they do not try to swim so much as they just swim. Of course the fish know more about swimming than an artist usually knows about drawing. And the fish after a lifetime of swimming swim as effortlessly as upon the first fishy day. But trying to draw and not trying are very complicated manuevers that alter one into the other willy nilly. It’s hard work not controlling the not controlling.
In any case, it can all transpire in the deepest privacy: underneath the hundred veils hiding the depths of the water of the pond of the notebook of imagination held in the common backpack — there with the pencils of various sorts and all the other stuff you cart from place to place, a vagabond of longings.
I spent the morning today and yesterday drawing in the conifer garden. After so much rain, days and days of rain, it was wonderful to sit in the sun and to observe the sun. Today felt like spring, so beautiful and mild.
I made a bunch of drawings.
After drawing I went back to my studio and did some fast paintings based upon the drawing.
It feels like the warm season should be beginning, not ending. That’s how persuasive the sun was today. But it won’t last long. And I’m trying to get outdoors in front of the motif while I can.
We will of course have plenty of sunny days ahead — but not warm ones. And my little fingers will get frozen, and all my landscapes will look like this little grisaille I did.
If you want to increase your freedom in painting, sometimes it’s useful to designate a specific painting as the official “junk” painting. The junk painting is one that doesn’t matter. It’s the canvas upon which any liberties at all can be taken. You can use cheap materials, you can paint in poor light, you can have a headache, you can change your mind as many times as you want. Expend the last dregs of your palette, all the half dried and sticky mess that remains behind from your “real” painting sessions on this unfortunate canvas. The canvas you might have thrown out is wisely saved to be used with the paint you should have thrown out. And with these junky tools allow yourself to take chances, to draw freely, to rehearse any idea. Here you can be a completely free spirit.
Everything you learn you can later use in a serious painting. The junk painting can also be a way of warming up. You can get started thinking visually with great freedom on the little canvas that doesn’t matter.
The photo above is sort of like “finding Waldo.” How many versions of the picture do you see…?
If it should happen that you find yourself typically doing better in the junk art — with its expansive freedom — than in the “real” arena — with its more expensive materials and greater sense of duty and its various crippling “shoulds,” then some fine morning just switch them — only forget to tell yourself. On that fine day, use the expensive canvas and the choice paints for the “junk” picture du jour and worry yourself silly with the cheap canvas and the palette scrapings. Just don’t tell your brain about the switch! Mum’s the word ….