Insight is a Question and a Mystery

I was just searching for some of my own pictures on the internet using the innocuous search term “warm” because I surmised that I had written about warm and cool colors, and I was curious what the term would capture.

In an image search these two pictures came up coincidentally side by side.  One is a detail of a still life containing a honey jar shaped like a bee hive and the other is a detail from a drawing featuring a broad yellow tree in an oriental formal garden. They are so similar in shape!

Sometimes I absent mindedly put one canvas next to another while arranging things in my studio and glancing back upon them am stunned to discover that one line or form flows right into the scene of the adjacent painting as if by design!

Who knows what connections one’s mind has made while the consciousness wasn’t paying attention.  What do large dome shaped yellow forms mean in the grand scheme of things?  Now I feel oddly connected to Monet’s haystacks in a way I never guessed before — or to this amazing painting by Van Gogh ….

Van Gogh Wheat_stacks_in_Provence

Of course mine are pale echoes of Van Gogh’s powerful haystacks.

What do large yellow domed things mean?  Does anyone know?

Here’s another reason why we do art: to find out what the Sam Hill is going on inside our heads.  For that we need to spy thoughts with our own eyes.


Lovely Glooms

Ever since that four o’clock in the morning drawing made in the gloom, I’ve discovered that certain kinds of drawing I do better when I don’t think about it at all.  Certainly it’s most easily accomplished — this not thinking about the drawing — when you cannot see.  Hmmm.  Since I cannot always be rising at 4 am (too much work) I have decided that I must find other ways to not-think.  Happily, I’m very near-sighted.  Thus, taking off the glasses is one way of not thinking because I cannot see. 

I’m also contemplating making a regular search for other kinds of wonderfully moody glooms!  Perhaps sitting in the closet with the lights out?  Sounds strange, I know, but you must “suffer” for art (Van Gogh said so). 

Being silly for art — when it works — is okay too.

Painting like I Play

alice's violin2

This is Alice’s violin, not mine, but I play a little.  I play “by ear” and “par coeur.”  As I grow in playing I find that I retrace steps I once took in becoming an artist.  Thus I learned where the notes are on my violin by trial and error.  I started playing at a rather late era for violin, so I felt there was no time to waste.  Couldn’t be bothered reading music — never have been very good at it anyway.  Plus jazz being the great love of my life, most every line I yearn to play hasn’t been written down in any interesting fashion, and if it were it’d be far beyond my meager sight-reading abilities.

So I learned awkwardly, making tons of mistakes, to locate pitches.  I reasoned to myself that it was similar to singing.  You don’t know what muscles you’re using to make a note — and usually don’t know what pitch you’re singing.  You just sing.  I told myself I would train my fingers to do what my throat muscles do.  Just go there.  And after a while they have begun, gradually more and more, to obey.

Now some of you know that a pitch can be played in more than one place on a violin.  Certain notes have locations on more than one string.  The same pitch has slightly different “coloring” depending upon where it’s played.  But it’s still fundamentally the same note.  And there’s the rub — here’s where your unconscious mind can do wonderful magic if you let it — if you are willing to play the fool — go out on a musical limb and jump!

You see, I — like any student violinist — am trying to learn to play faster!  And to do this requires a certain amount of letting go.  I listen to the music in my head, listen to it getting faster, and I try to keep up.  As a child when you jumped rope, once they began to swing the rope faster, you just had to jump faster!  And you stay in for as long as you stay in.  It’s kind of like that. 

But because you can play the same note in various places, and because I am improvising, I don’t know which location my hand is going to choose.  When I succeed (I’m getting better, more and more I succeed), I don’t afterwards know which location my hand chose.  Think about that for a minute.  My hand chose.  My fingers have learned where these notes are, and they find them.  But my conscious mind cannot keep up.

One really can do this, and the proof is in the listening.  And when you paint — because I was getting back to that you see — the same holds true.  You can paint without knowing what you are doing.  Sometimes it goes best when you don’t know.  You see, you choose.  It happens quickly.  Your hands move.  Presto chango.  The picture appears.

It can happen like that.  I like it when it happens like that.  Sometimes cluelessness is a virtue.

Finishing Fish

koi finishing

I have begun finishing koi paintings.  It’s a strange process finishing a painting because it’s such an open-ended and uncertain process.  Of course, in truth, finishing is nothing more than continuing to paint until one is “done.”  If you have a very specific notion of what the image should look like, arriving at “done” is mostly a matter of nose grind-stoning.  But it’s very possible for a picture to be elusive right until the very last minute, which is kind of what I’m up against with these koi — and this is all the more ironic since I’m painting some of them from preexisting images.  All I need really do is just copy my image (the painting’s are enlargements of something), but somehow mystery enters during the translation.  I don’t recognize the paintings being at all identical to their sources — indeed they are so different that I can honestly say I have no idea how they will turn out.

I get some sense of what novelists talk about when they describe their characters taking over a novel while it’s being written.  I knew I was making progress on a painting when the koi started swimming — and that’s a good thing.  I want them to swim.  But I don’t know where they are going.  And you’d think I would know.

Why is the artist always the last to know?

Above, still unresolved swimming going on.


Influence is something that sneaks up on you.  Where do your ideas come from?  Do you know?

I’ve looked at my daughter’s painting of a tree many times.  For a long time it sat on the kitchen table and we saw it daily.  It has the big plain features characteristic of children’s art, a bold simplicity that modern masters like Matisse and Picasso found compelling and used as visual sources in their works.  I like my kid’s painting.  Not just because she made it.  Certain works of hers I have already copied directly into paintings of mine, when they fit into the scheme of a painting.  She draws really well (though it’s not obvious in this particular image) so I’m accustomed to using her ideas and of being “influenced” by her. 

But the similarity between these two paintings, hers of the tree and mine of the honey jar, didn’t strike me until they just happened to be sitting in accidental proximity.  From across a room, the resemblance is especially evident.  The cradling branches of her tree become the wooden honey ladle balanced on the lid of the jar.  The trunk becomes the jar itself.  The dark shadow cast by the tree occupies the same area as the path of white flowers of the patterned cloth in my picture.  The green boughs are folds of jade cloth in mine.  And the litle cloud becomes the ribbed end of the dipper.

I cannot say for certain that my daughter’s picture affected mine.  But influence is something like that — a quiet affect of images remembered.  Lots of other influences, no doubt, also found their way into my little picture.  I have been looking at still life a lot lately and found many artists whose works I love that I’ve spent serious time enjoying — a feast for the eyes.

The surest way to teach your visual sensibility is to just look.  Pick strong, beautiful paintings and just look at them.  A lot.  The understanding of how the best artists compose their pictures comes to one silently through long observation.  An ordering principle works its way into your mind through such a process of looking.  It is never a matter of rules.  A strong sense of how things fit together doesn’t come through a conscious process of following instructions, but through a kind of visual osmosis that is the result of looking and staring.  The best instruction comes through the manifestation of your own longing when you see something and think, “Wow.  I wish I’d painted that.”