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.

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