Painting and Memory

Crowning the Grand Sow

Painting is the power of suggestion. There is nature and then there is art. When painting you look at something, and then you have to shift your eye to the canvas. There’s a few seconds where there’s only memory to guide you.

It would be interesting if some real authority investigated carefully the part which memory plays in painting. We look at the object with an intent regard, then at the palette, and thirdly at the canvas. The canvas receives a message dispatched usually a few seconds before from the natural object. But it has come through a post office en route. It has been transmitted in code. It has been turned from light into paint. It reaches the canvas a cryptogram. Not until it has been placed in its correct relation to everything else that is on the canvas can it be deciphered, is its meaning apparent, is it translated once again from mere pigment into light. And the light this time is not of Nature but of Art.” – Sir Winston Churchill.

Churchill is talking about painting, say a landscape, and the seconds needed to transmit in code what is seen in nature onto the canvas.  I think there is a certain style or look in painting which has been lost because of  modern aids like projectors. You lose those moments when you hold a reference in memory. After all, how a painter transmits this code onto canvas (basically how their brain works and interprets visual cues) is what makes each painter unique. A projector cuts out that middle process, creating something more photographic in nature. That’s ok if that’s the intention. But I like the natural awkwardness that working from memory lends to my works. I don’t work from models (also partly due to antisocial behavior) and rarely from finished drawings. I like to hold compositions in memory. This process of recollection and piecing things together is vital to my art. How else to create images a step removed from reality and suspended in time?

The Conspirators: The Artist and Her Beastly Muse

There is a monkey whispering in my ear. Is it a devil or angel, perhaps an alter ego planning dark or brilliant deeds? It’s nothing but a conspiring hairy muse. Shakespeare certainly thought it rascally, chiding the idle and absent muse in Sonnet 100.

by William Shakespeare

Where art thou Muse that thou forget’st so long,
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend’st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?
Return forgetful Muse, and straight redeem,
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument.
Rise, resty Muse, my love’s sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make time’s spoils despisèd every where.
Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life,
So thou prevent’st his scythe and crooked knife.

The Conspirators

The mischievous, elusive muse is a myth which remains with us today. In The Oxford American magazine – yes the issue where my painting “Young Woman with a Cupid” is featured (see post here) –  Rick Bragg gets funny and brutal, questioning the idea of the fairylike creature showering us with creative pixie dust.

The accoutrements, the fashion, I can do without, but I have always been intrigued by the notion, the whimsy, that some kind of writing spirit hovers near.

I, myself, have never seen one. But all my writing life I have heard writers speak of it, wistfully, as if it were a lover. “Oh, punkin’, I had planned to write today, but the muse, you see, it just wasn’t on me.”

Because you know that some days it doesn’t come at all, the words, and you write anyway, gaining just inches instead of yards, write until you can’t feel your legs and your family thinks that you might be dead.

If it had a form, this muse, it would be a hairy, goatlike beast, something you pin down with a boot on its neck, just so you won’t be so goddamn lonely during this hateful process. And at night, when you believe you are done with it, it bumps and growls from underneath your bed.
Rick Bragg Laments His Absent Muse

An approach on how to learn to paint (recommended books)

There are two schools of thought on how to learn to paint. The first is the atelier based education where technique takes precedence over vision with the goal that if you know how to draw/paint what’s in front of you, you can then have leisure to cultivate a vision. The second school proposes that once there is a vision, the artist can figure out a way to execute it and thus tailor her education towards that end. Being self taught, I naturally belong in the second school. For myself, vision is synonymous with soul or authenticity. It is often possible for a work of art with a lot of soul to overcome its limitations of execution or technique but much harder for a technically superb painting to overcome its limitations in soul or vision.

La Fortunata

My self education is comprised of a lot of looking, reading and practice, practice, practice. Here are some books which I recommend in the order of (1) tackle the history, ideas and philosophy to gain knowledge on what art is, (2) a study of composition and visual perception for the complex knowledge on how to put it together, (3) drawing and anatomy for the basics and lastly, (4) the actual study of painting. This progression from cultivating the ideas and then narrowing it down to specifics of technique is an example of how you can learn to paint on your own but with a less than haphazard game plan if you were desirous of structure. I might have approached it this way had I any foresight, but to tell the truth, I went head first in the haphazard manner (works remarkably well albeit with a lot of pain). If you know what you want, you’re halfway there. I have a dislike of instructional books which show a painter’s (usually the author’s) particular painting technique as they only teach a particular “how” but never address the more important question of “why?” I also add a fifth category of books relating to keeping oneself motivated and cultivating a studio habit because in the end, the hardest part about painting is sitting down to paint. Click here for the booklist or reading room page.
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Advice to painters – an excerpt from Robert Henri

The Triumph of Pierrot

“Was it worth it?” Is perhaps a proper question to ask when one wonders about the relevance of one’s work. If there ever was a manifesto on the artist’s life, Robert Henri’s seminal collection of writings, “The Art Spirit” come immediately to mind. It has been the bible for many a generation of hopeful creators. He explains the inexplicable desire of those who endeavor to pursue this calling.  Below is an excerpt form a “Letter of Criticism.” These are wonderful words to remember when one doubts the validity of his or her work.

Art is, after all, only a trace – like a footprint which shows that one has walked bravely and in great happiness. Those who live in full play of their faculties become master economists, they understand the relative value of things. Freedom can only be obtained through an understanding of basic order. Basic order is underlying all life. It is not to be found in the institutions men have made. Those who have lived and grown at least to some degree in the spirit of freedom are our creative artists. They have a wonderful time. They keep the world going. They must leave their trace in some way, paint, stone, machinery, whatever. The importance of what they do is greater than anyone estimates at the time. In fact in a commercial world there are thousands of lives wasted doing things not worth doing. Human spirit is sacrificed. More and more things are produced without

Successful Paintings – what makes a painting have “it”

Cupid Catcher

Recently I’ve been exchanging emails with a friend and collector about having that “eye” for spotting good paintings. How do you know if it’s good? Is it a gut reaction? The answer is yes, of course. As a painter you know when you need a red color here or when the composition is lacking or “off.” Or egads, when it must be destroyed. After years of painting, it’s something that comes subconsciously. As an exercise, my friend asked me to pick my most successful paintings and explain why I thought they had “it.” After much thinking, because I arrive at different and unique solutions for each painting, the best answer I can offer is this:

My most satisfying paintings are the ones that made me feel the most nervous in their creation.

Nervousness – because of technique (not really much of a concern, solutions manifest along the way), or idea (bigger concern, as this is always an act of faith)