Friday, May 28, 2010

People Watching People


Red Couch
11 x 14
At MOMA in NY there is, currently, a wildly-successful exhibit of a real woman, the artist Marina Abramovic, who sits silently in a chair for the entire day - no bathroom breaks, no food or drink.  Across from her is a chair for another person to sit and gaze at her.  Some people sit for minutes, some for hours, but most seem moved by the experience of being allowed to look at her openly.  Many people cry.  Wonderfully, there is a flickr photostream which documents the portraits of these people as they look at Marina and it also notes the length of time that each one sat.  
I won't get to see this exhibit but I think I understand something of the intensity of looking at a human face.  We all do.
I feel it often when I look at paintings of people in museums. Gazing at the faces of men and women, I'm struck by the fact of their presence - their personalities - fixed on canvas though their bodies are long gone.  It's a melancholy experience and has a complexity that I've never felt in front of any other subject matter.   I've never wondered about the experience of a tree in an old landscape painting, or whether a piece of fruit in a still life was eaten after the painter was done.
But with a painting of a person, I wonder how that person lived, loved and died.  I imagine the relationship between the painter and the sitter, and I think about how short our lives are.  All this narrative and emotion from some paint on a canvas.  Imagine the thoughts that Marina must evoke.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Warm-Up Painting

Spring on the River
12 x 16"
I don't know about the rest of you painters, but I can't do a decent painting right off the bat.  Each day I have to struggle through a warm-up painting that is stilted and pathetic before I can achieve a loose and interesting one. 
I've learned to make the warm up very small and just get it over with, but I can't skip it altogether and go straight to the good painting, or there won't be a good painting. 
I painted the plein air above when I was out with the excellent painter, Sharon Williams
We chatted through my warm-up painting (my fisherman had a big head and appeared to be made of wood) and fell silent to concentrate for the second ones.  Sharon managed to bag both paintings - she's clearly not a warm-up painter - and I got this one.  
I'm pleased by the gesture of the cast, and the sunlight and freshness.  It was a great day.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Finding the Painter Again

 Quiet Afternoon
20 x 20

I've spent the past several weeks - okay, months - struggling with my work.  Nothing quite pleased me.
I tried: different supports: copper, board, smooth, rough; different undertones: bright, earthy, neutral;  different methods of applying paint: thin and transparent, palette-knife heavy; and I've tried different colours.  Heaps of paint were sacrificed every day and there wasn't much to show for it. 
But, in the past couple of weeks, I feel like I've gotten my groove back.  It's not the same groove - my palette and application have changed somewhat - but it's related, and boy, does it feel good.
It seems now that the struggle was necessary for me to produce new and confident work. 
Not that much has changed on the outside; I added a couple of new colours to my palette and reduced my use of others and I experimented with new subject matter.  But on the inside, I feel like a different painter.  Having tried so many techniques and styles, I have been able to rule out a lot of options as "just not right for me".   Now I can move forward knowing that, while there are a lot of other ways to paint, I've tried many of them and have discovered (or rediscovered) the one that pleases me the most. 
That's a relief!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Influence

Fishing the River
20 x 20

"I want to paint like you" is a phrase that every instructor hears regularly.  Some bristle at it, sometimes with good cause.  I heard about a painter who walked into one of his galleries and thought that certain paintings were his own.  They turned out to be those of a previous workshop student, a fellow who notoriously - and successfully - mimicked the styles of everyone that he learned from.  And he learned from plenty, from the sounds of it.  His style underwent numerous shifts over time as he took more and more workshops. 
This mimic is, however, the exception.  Usually, when a student says that she wants to paint like me, it means that she likes my aesthetic, the way that I translate the world onto canvas.  It's a necessary and positive thing to say because it means that this person is identifying her own interest and future path.  She has looked at all of the instructors and their work and decided that mine is the path that she wants to be on.
Finding your own aesthetic is crucial to becoming a confident painter.  The time you spend in galleries, on gallery sites and in the library, is vital.  When I first began painting, I worked my way through the history of art, one fat, heavy, library book at a time.  And when I found a painter whose style I loved, I got out books on him or her and tried to discover how they worked - what their technique involved.  Sometimes I'd try to copy one of their works or, at least, their palette or brushwork in a practice painting.  It's a good way to learn how they created the magic that they did.   My favorites are, to this day, Berthe Morisot, Sorolla, and John Singer Sargent.  Of the contemporary artists, I feel like I've found kindred spirits when I look at Russian Impressionist painters like Sergei Bongart
In this age of self-made men and bold individualism, we unrealistically expect painters to have their own unique styles right from the start.  None of us do, however.  We all follow someone else's path before we discover how to make our own.
Apparently, even the mimic is now doing his own work.  He's discovered the piece of the path that is legitimately his.