I was driving by the frozen river on a winding road on my way to cross country ski with my dogs last Sunday. The sun was shining and flakes of snow were falling off of the trees and catching the sunlight. Some high, echoing piano notes were repeating on the radio. I used the Shazam app on my iPhone to find that the song was “Wash.” by Bon Iver. The notes sounded poignant and lilting and like a memory. They sounded to me like light green, and the sound matched the feeling of the flakes of snow catching the sun, and described the heartache of loss. I knew then exactly where to go with the canvas that had been sitting unfinished in my studio.
The painting, a 6’ x 9’ panel, was faintly sky blue covered by layers of dark drips. While listening to the song I got the idea to cover the blue with a spare, transparent wash of light spring green, turning the painting into a fresh forest, but one that is melting and dissolving and haunted by a few out of season snowflakes flying amidst the greenery. The snow over full green represents the sad fact of our climate turned upside down: snow in summer, heat in the winter, freezes in the tropics, heat at the poles, tornadoes and storms and all of the upheavals of a pained planet. I want the piece to be sensuously beautiful but to also give the viewer a jab, like the feeling you get when a beautiful bird smacks your window and falls. I want the piece to look delicate but slightly wrong, and to be evocative of loss. I want the piece to be eloquent and poignant. (more…)
How do you know when to stop working on a piece? Sometimes it is obvious, like when the thing you are going for has been achieved. Sometimes it is open to interpretation. Then you just have to live with the piece awhile to see if the need for more work becomes apparent or not. Other times you just don’t have a choice but to go past the end point. (more…)
What is the death of a good piece of art in the making? Loving it too much. Once you start to become attached to the outcome of the work you are in the process of creating you run the risk of becoming too careful to work with freshness and spontaneity. If you are thinking, “This thing is great! I don’t want to make the wrong move and mess it up now!” then you are doomed. Mess it up and get on with it already. Edith Wharton, the American writer, said, “Art is freedom of the spirit.” There is no freedom in worrying about how well you are performing.
Lots of my favorite pieces were at one point colossal failures. The fall from the excitement of possibility down to the realization of mediocrity and wasted hours and wasted materials is a long one but doesn’t really hurt once you get used to the feeling. Put that piece aside, and when it has been sitting around long enough that you have no feeling towards it, put it back on the easel and see what you can do. If you don’t need time to “heal” then start reworking it right away. Discipline doesn’t just mean getting into the studio – it means staying there. Be patient and keep working until your piece starts to have a direction. There doesn’t have to be an “end.” There is no place where you have “failed” and have to stop there. You are just not done yet! Keep going! The marks of your struggle are part of the piece. Stay with it until you can look at it critically but not judgmentally, which might take a lot of banging your head against the wall first, but that is the place from which you can be engaged and detached at the same time and therefore truly creative.
If you have a regular art practice then you are probably accustomed to this cycle. By now I can recognize the pattern so easily. When I do fall into it I try not to pay it any more mind than I would a fart. Just move on. Besides, I love the feeling of freedom you get when you don’t care about your piece anymore. And remember, you are learning the most from the struggles, not from the cakewalks …. Just like life!
To see my own example of a painting that was taken to the brink and back, click on the pics below. This piece is my current favorite. It is a 72″ x 48″ oil called “Life.” Just like the real thing- full of colors and messes and scrape marks and contrast and layers and history.
When you speak in front of an audience and you are concerned about how you come off, you often end up hearing yourself speak instead of thinking wholly about what you are saying. The same thing can happen in painting. Painting well means not hearing yourself speak. Painting extemporaneously.