February 8, 2012
• DOING THE WORK
• FAILING WITHOUT FALLING
• WHEN WRONG IS ALL RIGHT
• DON’T FINISH IT, LET IT LIVE
• FINDING THE EDGE—AND NOT GOING OVER
DOING THE WORK
Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to a good friend a few days ago:
saw your message on FB. glad you like the new one. in my opinion, it’s okay, but i missed what i was aiming for. the battle is still to keep myself from over-finishing! the painting was actually better at an earlier stage, but i just had to keep going. i am getting better, though. i’ve been painting like a madman for the past several weeks, sometimes several a day, but most of them get gessoed over, to become the blank canvas for my next attempt. some of my canvases have 3 or 4 or more layers on them by now. not a bad thing at all. just a period of intense study and i am growing at a mad rate! dreamed for years of getting to this point with my painting, where i was actually doing the bold, exciting things i always pictured, and it’s finally happening. i just never consciously realized the degree of focus and amount of time that would be required to get to this intensity. now, of course, it seems obvious, now that i’m in it. consciously i dislike being in nebraska in winter, but from a broader perspective i’m able to see that i had to isolate myself to this degree to get to this level of absorption in my work.
As I suggest in the above, I’ve been painting pretty much every day for the past several weeks. I’ve been working as an artist and painting professionally for over 30 years, but I’ve never gotten to this level before. I look back and realize that I THOUGHT I was a serious painter, but I really wasn’t. I hadn’t gotten close to the level of intensity and commitment I’m experiencing right now.
I always knew it was all about going into the studio and DOING THE WORK. But I guess I never realized how much work it requires. Or to be more specific, how much concentrated work. Stopping and starting a lot doesn’t accomplish nearly as much as being able to focus for long periods, like months, at a time. I’ve finally put myself into a position where I’m willing and able to do that.
One way I know I’m really committed (other than the amount of time I’m spending in the studio) is how many paintings I’m gessoing over. (For you non-painters, gesso is the white stuff we put on a canvas to prepare it for painting.) Lately I try to approach every painting as an exercise, as an experiment where I try something out to see what happens. If it turns out well enough to keep, great! If not, great—and time for the next exercise.
But I still have lapses. Like the big “statement” painting I wanted to do of Manuel.
FAILING WITHOUT FALLING
I was feeling kind of confident at this stage—this is a few weeks ago—and I decided what I was going to do was a big “statement” painting. I wanted to do something that would pop off a gallery wall, that would WOW people.
This is not a bad goal in itself, by the way. But when it’s the ONLY goal, you’re in trouble.
I chose a photograph of Manuel to work from, and cut myself a BIG piece of canvas, and got out my sponges.
Everything went really well—for a while. I was using sponges, I was loving the size of the painting and the freedom it gave me to move, and I was accomplishing interesting things both with “brushwork” and use of color. And I was excited about the energy and presence in the face. But—I went too far. Of the 4 images you see above, the next-to-last one is where I SHOULD have stopped. It was going so well, I just had to “finish” the face. The result looks like bad plastic surgery. The life and authenticity in the face went away and it got “pretty” and lost its oomph. So after several days of work, I had to gesso over this one.
But that was fine. I wasn’t even that upset. All I had to do was let go of my expectations that this would be the big WOW painting that would blow people away. And I was able to do that, because I realized that was a bogus goal anyway. Plus I knew how much I’d learned in the 3 or 4 days I spent on the painting.
(Big change from the days when a ‘failed’ painting would depress me for days!)
What happened next, though, was not a painting. I decided to do some rough sketches, not out of creative fervor but because I took a look at my bank account!
WHEN WRONG IS ALL RIGHT
Rough sketches are an important source of income for me. Small, affordable sketches are a lot more accessible to most collectors than big expensive paintings, so my sketches sell pretty fast. When money starts looking like it might be an issue, one of the first things I do is sit down and do some rough sketches. This makes it sound like I do it just for the money, but the fact is, it’s great exercise, and no matter what prompts me to sit down and do it, once I begin, I lose myself in the drawing, and sometimes amazing things happen.
If you’ve been a follower of this blog for awhile, you’re aware of a recurring theme: my quest for MORE BOLDNESS! MORE COURAGE! LOOSER, MORE ENERGETIC BRUSHWORK!
Which wouldn’t be a recurring theme at all if it weren’t so damn hard to accomplish!
It’s hard because of FEAR. Fear that the artwork won’t turn out well, whether it’s a blank canvas staring you in the face with its threat of failure, or a painting that’s well on its way and you’re suddenly afraid to take a chance of ruining it by being too daring.
So as I sat down and sharpened my pencils and began to sketch, I had a revelation. I thought, what if I did it wrong from the start? What if I FAILED before I even began? Then there would be nothing to fear!
So I began drawing a nude, but instead of trying to do it right, I just started making random marks all over the paper. Once I had quite a few of these WRONG marks, I started making some that were maybe not so wrong, marks that were sort of heading in the direction of the image I was working from. Then I started making marks that were very close to the source image, but I kept making wrong marks, too, at random, just to remind me that there was nothing precious here, nothing to fear ruining.
This had an amazing effect. I felt free! I started enjoying the act of drawing so much I found myself wondering why I’d never let myself have this much fun before. Sure, drawing had been fun sometimes, but mostly it was work. All of a sudden it wasn’t work anymore! I’d always known that letting myself “do it wrong” was a key to creative freedom, but I’d never before found such an effective way to trick my mind into letting me do that.
This unleashed a whole series of exciting new drawings, drawings that were filled with energy, movement and life—and gave me some insight as to what I needed to do in my painting to get to that place I was aiming for.
Over the next few days, trying to apply this new insight I’d gotten from drawing to my paintings, I had some ups and downs…
My turning point happened with a landscape.
DON’T FINISH IT, LET IT LIVE
I chose a photograph I’d taken recently in Santo Domingo, a sunset shot of the waterfront.
This one started out well. I liked the pencil drawing because it had a lot of energy. Then I began painting. After an hour or so, I stood back and…
OMG. It totally sucked. How did that happen?
It took a bit for me to realize that, while I had begun with the intention of ‘doing it wrong to set myself free’, I hadn’t done that at all! My old habits had kicked in so strongly I hadn’t even realized what I was doing until I stood back and saw what a boring painting I’d created.
As soon as I realized what had happened, I tore the painting down and tacked up another piece of canvas, and began again.
With total concentration and a very strong intention, I focused on doing it wrong, on painting and enjoying moving the paint around, on playing, with absolutely no worries about whether the painting ‘worked’ or not. It was working just because I was enjoying myself!
You can guess what happened. An interesting, lively painting happened!
And when I stood back from that painting, and realized it was good, it was fun, it was alive…I almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory! I almost went back in and ‘finished’ it.
Which would have been a HUGE mistake.
Along with the quest for boldness comes this companion challenge: learning when to stop. Part of it is the fear that others will call your work ‘unfinished’, and the rest is just enjoying the painting so much that you forget to watch for that magic moment when everything is in perfect, breathtaking balance. Not a perfectly even, stable, symmetrical kind of balance. No, the kind of balance where everything is poised to fall to earth but somehow is holding together. A balance that takes your breath away because you feel like you’ve been allowed to enter that timeless moment, that instant before everything collapses. That’s what I want in my paintings.
I began to approach it with this painting. I got even closer with the next one…
FINDING THE EDGE—AND NOT GOING OVER
I wanted to take the dangerous balance idea even further. I chose a photograph of Eduardo as the taking-off point.
I stayed very awake through this painting. I kept my awareness always on the whole painting, not on making it look like the photograph, but on that precarious balance I was aiming for…because I knew if I took my eye off the tightrope for even a second, there was a chance I’d fall to earth.
And it worked.
I painted and painted…but I also left a lot of it alone. And when I heard myself say, I love it but it’s not finished—