Wednesday, March 08, 2006

This is not from a photo. I set up a big still life: fruit, flowers, drapery, etc., as part of a birthday celebration for a friend. When the party was over I just couldn't resist the temptation to paint the set-up even though I am in the middle of the jazz piece - and a few others, as readers of this blog know. The party was on Sunday; on Monday I grabbed a big canvas and started working.

I'm doing the flowers first because they die so quickly. Painting flowers makes me anxious: I'm afraid that if I turn my back for a minute they will wilt on me. This is three days' work; I think I have the flowers going well enough now that I can move on to other parts of the painting and finish the flowers from memory later.

Ahh the emotions and anxieties of painting from life, it has been a long time since I've done so. Working from life seems easier and simpler than working from my imagination, more physical somehow. It may be that painting has become part of my muscle memory, like playing an instrument. When I am painting from life I can almost relax, respond to the subject and let my body do the painting.

Friday, March 03, 2006

I honestly don't know if I'll ever finish this one. The last time I worked on it I ended up wiping out the entire day's work. This is the kind of subject I almost never paint, so why did I even start this one? Partly it's that I've come to enjoy being in the woods more than ever before in my life; for me enjoying something is inseparable from wanting to paint it. But it is also because I did an oil sketch last summer when I was teaching a landscape class that I really like so I thought I might try to make a larger version.

After much struggle (wiping out, starting over, wiping out again) I felt I got a good first statement. The second day went reasonably well too - and then the disaster, which, fortunately, I was able to wipe out enough to get back to a reasonably good state. I think the problem may have been that I was experimenting with a new yellow oxide pigment. When I get out of my color harmony comfort zone I freak out on some deep level and hate what I've done. I also think that if I'm ever going to do a successful painting of this subject I need to think in very abstract terms and not get too literal.

This is the study that I did plein air.

This is getting quite close to being finished, perhaps just one more day. Tom tells me each time I work on it "It looks great, what more do you want to do?" - and I'm practically weeping with frustration because, as T.S.Eliot said, "That's not what I meant at all" The problem, I realize now, is that I'm trying to paint not what is seen but what is unseen. I am copying a very old sketch, from my student days in fact, the sketch seems so simple but when I began to copy it I was overwhelmed by the feeling it gave me. I saw big rhythms of energy sweeping through the painting pulling together rocks, water, trees and depositing all in the unknowable, unfathomable distance. The first stages of the painting were almost completely abstract, reflecting my desire to put this perception to canvas. The results were unsatisfying, incomprehensible; I made the inevitable turn towards representation, back to my endless attempt to wrap abstraction in a semi-transparent veil of realism, to offer the viewer two contrasting flavors in one visual bite.

This is the most recent version of this piece, which is still unfinished. The subject is so complicated; every time I pick it up I find more in it: another rhythm to explore, a deeper sense of metaphor to express. I have a lot of ambition for this painting. Perhaps because the metaphor is so complex, I am conscious of needing every level of the painting to be active: from the deep, abstract heart of the design to the sparkling engaging surface.

I haven't worked on it since early February, but I'll pick it up again soon.