“When I’m painting a picture, yes I’m relying on my reference to guide me in the general terms of what goes where, but my aim is to apply paint in a variety of ways in order to create a lively and interesting paint surface.
“I try to fight the urge to render stuff in a straightforward or mannered approach, and instead search for oblique or unexpected solutions … My end goal is to produce a picture that may appear realistic when viewed from a distance, but is also interesting to observe up close as well.”
A painting that tells different stories from a distance and close up, rather than the same story, is far more interesting. The “rewarding close looking” works for abstract painting as well as it does for realism, and everything inbetween. It creates an interaction between the viewer and the painting as you step closer and see more. A painting that dissolves into smaller pieces of colour and marks the closer you get.
“Making a painting is so hard it makes you crazy. You have to negotiate surface, tone, silhouette, line, space, zone, layer, scale, speed, and mass, while interacting with a meta-surface of meaning, text, sign, language, intention, concept, and history.
“You have to simultaneously diagnose the present, predict the future, and ignore the past—to both remember and forget. You have to love and hate your objects and subjects, to believe every shred of romantic and passionate mythos about painting, and at the same time cast your gimlet eye on it.
“Then comes color—even harder to negotiate.”
Amy Sillman, “On Color”, published in “Painting Beyond Itself: the Medium in the Post-Medium Condition”, Sternberg Press, 2016
If you’re thinking this quote isn’t exactly motivating, that it’s more inclined to make you give up painting that inspire you to fresh and new things, let me hasten to say that I have chosen it as a reminder that whilst painting can be extremely rewarding, it’s something with many facets to it and thus many challenges. If you’re finding it hard going on any particular day, not getting the results you see in your mind’s eye, cut yourself some slack.
“We are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear, a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is a brutal untruth.
“Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.”
Katherine May, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, (via BrainPickings)
Sometimes ideas are fresh and growing. At other times, hibernating and resting. Creativity is seasonal, and tidal. Relax into its rhythms and ride the waves.
“The world needs more and more compassionate creativity to solve difficult problems confronting us. Creative people do not have answers, but they habitually question the status quo and think about alternatives and improvements. They discover and invent possible answers. They habitually ask better questions. They have optimism. When combined with empathy and compassion, creativity is bound to be a force for good. Teaching creativity to everyone is vitally important if we desire a good life for all.”
Marvin Bartel, Teaching Creativity (2 June 2014)
We need to stop buying into the lie that creativity is a talent you’re born with or not, that it can’t be learnt and developed. Too many people are taught that they’re not creative, believe it, and lead smaller lives as a result. Socialised into fitting into the polite little box called “being a good girl” and “ladylike” and “don’t do it like that” and “bright colours aren’t suitable for winter”. Cue: The Logical Song and Warning.
“When dealing with art, intuition is best, but knowledge of physical phenomena enables us to work in a more reasoned fashion. Be tempted to learn about colour. Find out how to gain control of your palette. And then, once you have discovered the advantages of this logical approach, empty your mind and let yourself paint.”
I see “intuitive” as making choices without thinking much about them, making choices without worrying overly what the outcome might be but just to see what happens, and moving forward with whatever does result. The more materials I have to hand when I paint, the more intuitive the choice can be. The more knowledge I have of what my materials do, how they work and interact with one another and different surface, the more intuitive I can be.
If you struggle to make a choice when trying to work intuitively, try this: whenever you hesitate, then it’s time to change medium or technique. Continue working where you were but swap from say watercolour to coloured pencil or graphite, acrylic to oil pastel, using a brush to a palette knife, applying paint to lifting it.
Gaining “control of your palette” is rooted in knowing what the colours you’ve got on your palette do when mixed together. How to get a mixed colour again, and again, as well as avoiding unwanted results. The fewer colours you’ve got, the easier it is to learn this. Then add in another and learn what it does.
A few weeks ago I started using a violet on my oil painting palette, and I’ve had such fun exploring the results of mixing this with my favourites. But it’s done whilst wrapped in the security blanket of my known colours, that any new colour I mix I want to recreate comes from the violet plus one of those.
My thanks to Sarah W for sending me this quote and a bit about the book it’s from.
“Do not rub out, if you can possibly help it, in drawings that aim at artistic expression. … it has a weakening effect, somewhat similar to that produced by a person stopping in the middle of a witty or brilliant remark to correct a word.
“If a wrong line is made, it is left in by the side of the right one in the drawing of many of the masters. “
When is a mistake not a mistake but part of the piece?
I’ve found that using pen rather than pencil has helped me focus on moving forward through and along with ‘mistakes’, because erasing isn’t an option. Not that it always ends up in a satisfying place, but it’s taught me to work with what’s happening rather than changing my mind and starting a bit again as happens when working with an eraser.
“It’s all very well to talk piously about the painstaking act of seeing; the painter has to translate those pieties into a practice.
In place of Cézanne’s rectangular, latticed strokes, [Lucian] Freud composes with a strongly handled, shield-shaped mark—emphatic swiping enforced with a persistent diagonal rhythm, so that each sharp mark runs jagged to the next, like the tracks of skis.
White highlights, meanwhile, are nakedly laid on, not modulated from within the shade but splashed down impulsively.
Agitation is the signature mark, and angst the signature emotion.”
“But Theo, you can be certain that when I first went to Mauve with my pen drawings and M. said, you should try it with charcoal and chalk and brush and stump, it was damned difficult for me to work with that new material.
“I was patient and it didn’t seem to help at all, and sometimes I grew so impatient that I trampled on my charcoal and was wholly and utterly discouraged. … but all the same I had taken a step forward.
“Now I’m going through a similar period of struggle and despondency, of patience and impatience, of hope and desolation. But I must plod on and anyway, after a while I’ll understand more about making watercolours.
“If it were that easy, one wouldn’t take any pleasure in it.”
If Vincent van Gogh had continued to draw as in the drawing below his whole career, would we even know who he was now?
He did it in 1882 at the request of his uncle Cor. “It was his first paid commission after becoming an artist less than two years earlier. … Van Gogh had a hard time drawing the bridge in accurate perspective. So he changed its shape slightly.” (Quote source: Van Gogh Museum)
There’s nothing wrong with drawing above, but it could’ve been done by any of a number of artists. The drawing below is more like a “Van Gogh”, full of expressive, energetic mark making in a recognisable handwriting.
“Drawing can be both tender and aggressive, from the lightest grazing of the surface, to putting your whole weight behind a graphite stick. This application and easing of pressure, the graceful movement of lines, the continual adding of marks has such a beautiful rhythm to it, and when immersed can become wonderfully meditative.
“Every mark is a record of a moment in time, a movement and a gesture. Beginning with the faintest of outlines, I never fail to be excited to see a drawing develop as I work layer by layer from light to dark – appearing from a ghostly image into clarity.”