Monday, April 12, 2010

I have it. I need it. I'll do without it.

Necessity is the mother invention. Resourceful creativity is the proud papa. When it comes to laying down a picture with paints, lots of aunts and uncles show up and complicate the picture. Have I lost you with that analogy? Don't fret. Being in an uncertain state of mind means lots of interesting things can sneak into our heads while the "certainty" filters are taking a break.

Eons ago, a seventh grade art teacher threw me a real curve ball. Middle school age is around the time we start thinking we know a few answers. You know, a lot of the important stuff that's just lost on the elementary school kids. On this particular day, my art teacher set up an ambitious still life display, which included two scarecrows with papier mache mouse heads sitting on a bench, surrounded by all sort of interesting knick-nacks. It looked much like a set from an avant-garde play. The teacher announced that we would be painting this little mise en scène using only three colors. "Ah..." said my inner know-it-all "...a color study using only red, yellow, and blue." The teacher then dropped the bomb. We were to use any three colors,
except red, yellow, or blue.

I remember being on the verge of apoplexy for a few moments. Was such a feat even possible? I mean, everything was goint to look all...weird! I chose purple, green, and white, I believe, and proceeded to paint something, quite surprisingly to me, completely satisfactory! I was amazed. It certainly looked a little odd, but all the light and dark values (which I would later learn were the key elements to the lesson) hung together well, and the picture looked pretty good to me.

Beyond the immediate lesson of understanding how much visual "comfort" is imparted by having all the lights and darks of an image (values) in their appropriate places, even when the colors (hues) don't correspond to what we perceive from an object, there was an important creative lesson to be learned; even when you can't use everything you want, you can find a way to meet your needs with what you have.

Consider the artist's color palette. I sell artists' paints to make a living, and am a painter myself. I have encountered just about every level of expertise and naïveté when it comes to assembling a color palette. In most figurative painting, where artists use colors we see in the world, in the places we're used to seeing them, most professionals rely on a tried and true palette of a dozen or so versatile pigments finely balanced against one another. Less experienced painters tend to fall into one of two extremes. A few come armed with the popular but erroneous assumption that every color can be made from mixing red, yellow, and blue (you can almost get away with this approach if you divide your reds into a warm orangey one and a cool crimson one, and add a tube of white. This is the bare minimum for a balanced, if very limited palette.) The other extreme is the painter who relies on the paint manufacturer to deliver ready made mixtures. They look for colors such as ocean blue, grass green, sky blue, flesh tone, etc. This type of painter is missing the boat in a big way. So much of the art of painting is the careful consideration of colors in relation to one another, that relying on a pre-fabricated generalization of a color is tantamount to giving up before you begin!

Knowing all the rules means you can break them all the easier. I will often begin a painting with an unbalanced color palette with a very specific goal in mind. Not having every color at one's disposal means that other colors have to work double, maybe even triple duty, giving the painting a definite bias towards a particular hue, and a definite identity. Example: "You know which painting of yours I really like? That big blue one!" When painting an underwater scene, to set up another example, eliminating red from your palette all but guarantees a very blue-green "oceany" feel. It's a clever way to exercise one's resourcefulness in managing to do without something pretty important (the color red in this case.)

Here's where it falls apart. Suppose I really see a need for that color red? I better put some on the palette. Now I'm feeling a little stuck, and the blues and greens are getting a little monotonous. That red paint on the palette is really appealing right now. Surely there's somewhere I can put a dab or two on this painting... What I'm getting at here is that it's silly to make an arbitrary rule to categorically banish any color from a painting, and it's equally foolish to give up on finding a creative solution within imposed limits simply because we might view these guidelines as a trick, or a crutch.

I've previously talked about the importance of staying engaged and interested very actively in whatever activity you happen to be doing at any given moment. Creating artwork is especially susceptible to suffering under the weight of a bad idea at the wrong time. It's in a moment of indifference or boredom that we can make careless decisions which suddenly barge into a carefully crafted and considered painting with the possibility of ruining it. My position at the moment is to work from a complete palette, and try like hell to stay away from a color if I can't completely convince myself that it, and only it, will do in a particular moment to achieve something specific I am after. It is harder than it sounds. I have very definite "comfort colors" that want to come tearing out of the gate first and be used liberally. They are always appealing to me even when the painting as a whole is less so. I find that I have to purchase these colors more often because I use them so much, overuse them in many instances.

I hope that it's a sign of maturation as an artist to expect oneself to work without a crutch, without a safety net. I want to believe I'm strong enough to resist using formulas and rigid techniques whether they be about color, drawing, composition, materials, etc. I've been trying for a long time to ditch the dreaded pencil drawing under the paint, that rigid skeletal cage that tries to put boundaries on your paint strokes, confining you to stay within the lines, to stick to the plan. If there's a good way to under-sketch a painting, I've never found it. I'll keep trying, since I don't want to give up on something just because it's difficult. But a worse feeling to experience during painting is that of going through the motions, where the likelihood of a mistake or unforeseen circumstance is so mitigated that the piece is a veritable fait accompli before it's even painted. No surprises. No life of its own. I could do without that.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Art Spirit

I lift the title of this blog entry straight from the title of a book I happen to be poring over at the moment. I've never tried to read this book cover to cover, it doesn't lend itself to that approach very well. The book is titled, as you can glean from this intro, "The Art Spirit" by american painter and teacher Robert Henri (1865-1929)

The book is a collection of writings, notes, notes from students, all bringing together practical advice, philosophy, and inspirational material culled from Henri's teachings. He not only taught the nuts and bolts of painting, but he sought to cultivate a very accesible attitude applicable to any creative work, as well as towards an appreciation of art and the "art spirit" which any dedicated and caring tradesman can bring to their craft.

What has this book meant to me lately? I've owned it for many years, appreciated a passage here and there, but, sadly, usually during a fallow time, creatively speaking. At the moment I am enjoying a welcome spell of artistic clarity of purpose and productivity. Everything I get from the book is immediately applicable to the body of work which engages me at the moment. Not only that, but, as is often the case when engaging in a deeply satisfying and enriching experience, there are resonances in life away from the canvas. It's these positive side effects I find interesting at the moment.

In a nutshell, the overriding principle at play here is learning to trust your instincts. The way to do that is to be fully engaged in what you are doing, immersed as fully as possible, so that what your instincts compel you to do is not a formulaic response, but a considered reaction to whatever matter is before you.

When beginning a new piece of artwork I rarely have a fully realized internal vision that simply needs to be translated into actuality. A lot of it just gets made up as I go along. Issues arrive however, when, for lack of a certain kind of creative courage, coupled with the desire not to "mess something up," I start drawing on a predictable bag of tricks, rehashing a past successful bit of formula.

I wish I could successfully impress on you the sinking feeling of literally painting yourself into a corner, of landing in a sticky trap of your own creation, of taking the supposed safe route to success and finding yourself surrounded on all sides by generic ideas and half-assed solutions. What do you do at that point? See it through to the bittersweet end, creating a monument to hours and hours spent doing something that fails to satisfy? I would imagine everyone at some point in their lives has realized they've spent a lot of time on something they ultimately had to walk away from, as it did not bring the satisfaction needed or fulfill the promise we imagined it would.

So I turn again to the title of this entry. The Art Spirit. Let me define that for the moment to mean applying the intuitive creative forces to the business of going about one's business. I set out on the professional leg of my career with no plan. After years of missteps, mistakes, and mismanagement, and little creative career satisfaction to show for it, it would be easy to surmise having some kind of plan in place would have helped immensely. But what of an individual that sets out with a good plan, follows it to the letter, and still ends up in the wrong place, lacking satisfaction and fulfillment?

The commonality that could apply to both these cases is possibly a lack of flexibility in recognizing an opportunity, either by being too focused on one particular course, or not engaged in the process enough to see where the effort needs to be applied. The same issues can easily crop up during the painting process: too many preconceived notions, not enough will to recognize a fault and invent a solution. Result? At best a passable but uninspired piece, at worst an ill-considered mess.

Painting, Life. Life, Painting. The same creative principles could be said to apply to both. I spent years disengaged from both my artwork and many facets of my life. They are both getting sorely deserved attention right now, simultaneously. I am convinced that this is not a coincidence. What a difference it makes when giving your best effort doesn't feel like effort. It feels like living.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

No I do not want to read your blog.

I read the above statement on a t-shirt once. I suppose an apposite response from me would be to blog about not wanting to be talked at by clothing; it never poses more than a single, intractable argument. Where's the fun in that?

With this blog entry I seek to turn what has been a much neglected repository of occasional inside jokes into a place to actually do some writing on any number of subjects. I have recently grown to take notice of the power of the written word used in daily life. For me it has been a way to organize a mind cluttered with ideas competing for attention. It's been instrumental in creating new friendships and laying thoughtful foundations for them. It has also been therapeutic to write stuff down which needs to be said, thoughts and ideas that just don't find a natural home in casual conversation.

Sometimes it feels like making a speech; all the writer can do is hope the audience enjoys listening to it. Other times, if there is a response, it can feel like a tremendous conversation, where massive fleets of thoughts and emotions embark like ships to a distant shore, and we eagerly await the visiting ships from that other land.

Another form of written communication I've grown to really love is the online chat/text message, particularly from a mobile device. It almost feels like the modern day equivalent of telepathy; transmitting a thought anytime, anywhere, to someone you know. I especially appreciate being able to share with someone at a moment's notice something evanescent which may not last through the rigors of the day.

To sum up, I enjoy writing, and since I'm too much of an extrovert to have much material to put into a private diary, I will blog instead.

Take THAT, you truculent t-shirt!