Which Way is Up?

Clumpy paints from years ago.  Bumpy canvas.  Stray brush hairs.  A paying job demands attention.  Immediate creative vertigo.  Swimming in cold weather, ill prepared with an expectation of warmth outside the door, I made it to the studio with a lavender hat, a pink scarf and my thermos.  Thanks to passive solar radiation it was warm.  In spite of well laid under-paintings, today seemed like a waste of last week’s enthusiastic preparation for a new fluency in my painting.  It wasn’t.  Read on and you’ll see.

Last Friday I wanted to paint large.  The tubes of liquitex felt skimpy.  Why not use the paints purchased for summer camp 6 or more years ago? First there was some black.  Shiny thick with a hint of blue, it made a great first mark on the birch plywood.  It felt somber, so out came the white. The brush marks of the hardware store 2 inch brush were sponged away here and there.  Cheap paint disintegrates into its component colors really well with water washes. The hint of payne’s grey and purple were not intentional.  The other thing about these particular paints is that they don’t dry right away.

 While waiting, I pulled out 2 hand stretched canvases primed with gesso that had frozen and thawed at least 4 times.  It felt like a layer of sand under white paint.  I hoped the color would help.  Grey alone was too superficial.  Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna?  How about red, yellow and a dash of blue?  With a little black it became umber and on its own it came close to sienna.  As drier flecks of paint rose to the surface, they were slid off the canvas with a brush and washed away in the bucket of water.  This was slower and less magical than expected, but it was a road map for something waiting in my mind.  An abstract chiaroscuro with major components of the composition appeared like an out of focus sepia print. It would be perfect when I came back to the studio on Monday… right?

Inspired by some of the pictures snapped on my phone, I was working toward the strong contrast of October light on the trees and grass.  If I start with an idea of a tree, it usually turns out to be anything but.  It felt childish.  Separate parts of a scene would pop into my head–yellow leaves, horizon, sky, trunk.  With the brush I wandered from icon to icon.  The idea was to get the color out in a new way.  Unfortunately the distraction of sand and loose hairs from the brush made me want to leave.  In a moment of intense disappointment, I flung the canvas across the room.  It was also time to do some paper-work and have a “Farm Meeting”.  Checking out physically and mentally was the best way to put a day and a half of  seemingly wasted work into perspective.  My call with Mary Ann would surely give me some guidance.

She did give me a lot of ideas, but they fell on somewhat cynical ears today.  At 3pm I came back with these synthesized pearls.  Some days conditions are crap.  Just get to work.  And so I did.  I abandoned good brush technique that would just be a waste on uncooperative ground.  My  hardware store brush worked just fine, but I was caught in the icons swimming in my head.  I just kept working really fast and flipping the canvas every time I felt like flinging it across the studio.  Tom Waits was on.  If he can make music out of junkyards, I could make something out of this mess. The staid landscape icons faded. As I continued to flip the canvas some interesting things were almost born: a raven, a woman’s face, a female torso, huge owl eyes.  Tempting as they were, I kept painting them away.  My technique: make smaller studies in a round robin of frenzied activity only on the parts that itched each time I flipped the canvas.  Was I playing with the paints?  Yes.  And it was as decadently satisfying as alternating spoons of peanut butter with bites of chocolate.

At some point, glutton’s remorse set in.  Just what the heck was I doing?  Although there were some excellent pieces of paint, which way was up?  The horizontal sky on top of a quilt of color was not completely disorienting; however, it was not what I wanted.  It felt lazy and formulaic.  So I took it out in the sunshine for a photo.  It’s strange how the camera can act as a fresh pair of eyes.  I saw the beauty, but I wanted vertical instead of horizontal.  Solution: flip it again, consolidate some warm colors in the center with ochres, and let the orchid invade the column of green on the right.  To my surprise, the canvas started to behave.  With fingers and brush I had tamed it.

The crazy thing is, as I type this way too late on a school night,  I wonder– Did I go one step too far?  Who cares?  No, really.  It doesn’t matter.  No matter the intention, after an honest process something living was born.  It changes each time I look at it.  Even with the moments of intense doubt I come back to it.  The beauty of photography is the ability to preserve as you go.  I can have step four and five if I want, and step five is growing on me.  At the end of the day Thing 1was put aside, and my new favorite ritual was repeated: clean the palette.  It’s as meditative as washing the dishes after a huge, delicious meal.  This time there is a little more structure to the process.  It hit me as I was leaving the Food Lion last Thursday.  Here is what it looks like in the first few stages.  Working with a photo in my head and off to the side of the canvas, avoids a lot of the pressure to make something just as it is.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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