Forget the Axeman – It’s Finished When I Say It’s Finished

The holidays are here in full force, but I’ll admit that my head is more in the studio than in wrapping packages.  I’ll get the packages wrapped in time, I know, but it’ll be a last minute rush because something happened – a good thing – in the studio.

Of course, each good thing is balanced by something else, and yesterday it was balanced by knocking over a ceramic mug holding brushes in water.  The mug smashed to bits on my tile floor and I was left mopping up the gray water and shards before I could get back to work.  Well, Mercury is in retrograde and these things happen.

The good thing is that I began reworking the painting I posted last time (Me afraid of the axeman?  Not on your life!), and the result makes me so happy that I’m off today to pick up a couple more 15 x 30 canvases to turn one painting into a triptych.

Although I had not read any of Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit in the last couple of weeks, this book has become my go-to guide, and yesterday – after the reworking – I happened on these words:  “Very technically speaking, thicker paint, a fearlessness in painting over and not being afraid of spoiling in so doing, may be conducive to a development of more solidity…”

Are you listening, axeman?  The painting is finished when I say it’s finished.

The other part of the good thing is that once I finished, I realized that my vertical painting had become horizontal.  Now this is not just a matter of randomly turning it one way or another; this is a matter of the bricks telling Kahn what they wanted to be.

When I work with writers, I tell them to pay attention to the subconscious which often knows more than the writer about what to say and what’s happening in a poem or essay or story – things the writer may not learn for some time to come.  I’ve had the experience myself with writing and now I’m learning to trust it with the art.  I intend to pay attention.

I’ll be on the alert for the axeman, but as confidence builds – along with the layers of paint – and as my trust in the subconscious takes hold, I’ll do just what I do with the writing:  I’ll start with a general idea of what I want to create, a general idea of the palette, a general idea of where I’m headed, but I will always – always – let the paint have the final say.

Here’s the painting I posted last time along with the final result:

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I’ll wrap the packages later…

Happy holidays and creating time to all!

 

 

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Knowing When to Stop: The Axeman Cometh

I’ve spent a lot of years in the world of words – writer, writing instructor, editor, and oh, yes, reader.  I’m familiar with William Faulkner’s famous advice to writers that they must sometimes “kill your darlings,” those phrases you are particularly fond of which are really not all that good.

This kind of murderous idea is a little shocking, I suppose, but I laughed out loud when I recently came across another murderous idea advanced by American Impressionist William Merritt Chase.

“It takes two to paint. One to paint, the other to stand by with an axe to kill him before he spoils it.” 

Chase is perhaps best known for his often idyllic scenes of idle leisure that suggest no sign of murderous intent.  But his point is well-taken and describes a problem inherent in almost any creative endeavor I can think of – knowing when to stop.  Closely related to another problem for an artist – wondering later if you stopped too soon.

It’s a dilemma.

Hemingway said he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times.  The interviewer asked what the problem was and Hemingway said, “Getting the words right.”  I wonder if Michaelangelo or Picasso or David Hockney would say something similar about a particular painting.  “Getting the paint right.”

I’ve certainly had the experience of finishing a painting only to find myself awake at 3:00 a.m. with questions and new ideas for the painting.  Out of bed and lights on so I could look at it one more time, perhaps even graced by a shot of inspiration before I headed back to bed to dream sweet dreams of what I’d do with it in the morning.

A couple of times it worked.  Other times it turned out to be like the “inspiration” of a writer awake in the middle of the night who penned the immortal words, “All the tears fall in my ears.”

I started a painting a couple of weeks ago in a new format for me – I abandoned my 20 x 24 canvases for a 15 x 30 just to “see how it would feel.”  So far, I’ve “finished” it twice and then reworked it after one of those nagging 3:00 a.m. calls.  I think now it’s really finished.

Perhaps it’s true that an artist never finishes a painting, she just stops.  Either that or we get a glimpse of the guy with the axe waiting to make sure we don’t ruin it.

Here’s the new one…as yet untitled…

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Breaking Rules and Making Art

Simon Jennings, trained as a graphic artist and a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, authored a number of books for artists. He worked as a designer and graphic artist in New York, Chicago, and London and taught at several British art schools, including the Royal College of Art.

My favorite among his books is his Artist’s Color Manual which includes valuable information about the history of color and pigments, a section on the characteristics of individual colors and a section titled “Creative Directions” which describes and illustrates techniques with various media.

Jennings includes a number of quotations from artists and also his own sometimes deliciously irreverent narrative about painting.  As the sometime poster woman for irreverent behavior over the years, I particularly like his suggestion that we break the rules.  After all, it’s art!

Of course, artists have been experimenting and breaking rules for years. It’s the nature of the best of the game.  Just as in writing or music or any other creative endeavor, we learn the rules (the scales, the grammar, the classic steps) and then we get to fool around.  We get to make choices and discoveries.

Here’s Jennings on “Experimenting with Color:”

“Experiment with how you look at colors in nature; the colors are rarely like you think they are.  Use any materials that are available and ignore correct usage–try gouache over acrylic, mix it with ink, and scribble over it with colored pencils and pastels.”

A friend sent me a card recently with a quotation from actor/comedian Danny Kaye: “Life is a great big canvas. Throw as much paint on it as you can.”  To which I might add “and in any media you choose.”

Jennings continues:

“Rub, scratch and scrub into the surface, using a simple limited palette of two or three colors to avoid the results looking too muddy. Use thick and thin paint, draw lines and apply washes.”

Even before I read this passage, I began – in my own irreverent way – to “rub, scratch and scrub.”  As I’ve written before, I no longer use brushes – I use tools, and the rub, scratch, scrub technique is perfect for the palette knives, rollers, scrapers and anything else I pick up.

Jennings ends this sidebar as follows:

“Forget about making an accurate drawing of a photographic likeness of the object – just apply the paint as fast as you can. All you are trying to do is capture a vibrant impression of the simple still life in front of you, so concentrate on the colors. See what turns out. If you like what you have done, keep it. If not, discard it and try again.”

I don’t work from a still life these days, but my first serious drawing from many years ago was done in pastel and was of an apple the instructor had set up for a still life. I pulled the drawing out recently to remind myself of the long distance from then to now (on a lot of maps).

Back then, I was pleased that my pastel looked like a real apple, the one on the table, and told the instructor so.  She smiled and said, “That’s good. Now do one that doesn’t look like an apple.”

Looking back, I realize that her words may have been my beginning in the happy world in which I now reside with abstract expressionism.  All color, all the time. A world in which I always “concentrate on the colors” and in which I wait to “see what turns out.”

Here’s a new piece, “Dreamsville,” and I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out.  It’s 20 x 24 acrylic and it’s available.

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