Find and Seek

Picasso famously said: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”. He also said: ”It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”  There is wisdom there.

Extrapolate your own meaning, but for me he’s talking about approaching the painting process with wonder and curiosity, while abandoning concern for outcome. This is a tall order for most of us. We strive. We strive for accomplishment, for approval and for security, but rarely is our goal to simply play, as a child, to see “what happens if…?”

Playing with whatever materials might be around in the studio does not provide solid ground for progress. Things keep shifting. There is no way to predict. No formula or outline that can guarantee a respectable result. It’s an endeavor to discover that includes the graceful acceptance of failure. Progress is the byproduct that seems too allusive.

The New Year dust-off of my overstuffed studio is a nod to Picasso’s philosophy. I decided to paint a small, quick painting a day, no bigger than 11×14, without plan or subject, with just a sense of experimentation and play. Whatever is on the table is employed—some inks, metallic powder, an old book and some sheet music, a mish-mash of color. I started by just opening and pouring, pushing and gluing.

Why is it so hard to play!? It should be easy and fun to lose oneself in playful gestures, in any media, that can give our imagination free reign. But we strivers find it difficult. We don’t value it as a worthy action. However if we don’t exercise the power of play, it gets rusty. Ideas, dreams, fancies get stiff—think Tin Man with a brush.

So, ironically, I’ve been using the utmost discipline to not rely on subject or idea and just play with whatever is in front of me using only instinct. Geez, the results seem boring so far. But I’m putting the work on the wall, letting it steep and meld, refraining from disliking it and hoping it will teach me something. A little non-judgmental analysis can inform a whole body of work moving forward.

The activity is both a little fun and a little painful. But I’m determined, in my striving self, to continue through the month hunting and pecking at this and that piled around me. Joy must be in there somewhere. There remain endless creations to be discovered by simply starting and letting go.

Picasso also said “I don’t seek, I find.” We’ll see what’s underneath a new leaf for a new year.

 

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A Christmas (W)rap

Can you believe how long it takes to wrap presents? It has taken days and days. It makes me wonder how it can measure in terms positive productivity. I’m a big fan of gifts bags, which take a quarter of the time to fill. But our event-shrewd daughter has shamed us into the labor of wrapping with ribbons and official tags—no folding a scrap of paper for a homemade label or simply writing the giftee’s name on the package.

So I’ve/we’ve been wrapping–endlessly. On a couple of our sessions we listened to carols. Today I listened to the radio—the news. It’s sad, dismal and scary. How to reconcile the woes of the world with hour after hour of this seemingly insipid task. The polar bears have to swim hundreds of miles to find ice fields for hunting. Christmas markets in Europe are attacked—nine dead. Leaded drinking water still plagues Michigan families. The country is divided as never before. Homelessness persists and in many areas it is on the rise. And then there’s Syria. Heartbreaking Syria. And so it goes.

How to proceed? To gather and sing? To toast? How to spend and waste and worry about how the presents are wrapped?

Otis showed a lovely film a few years ago called Joyeux Noël. It’s Christmastime during World War I. The Scots begin playing pipes and singing festive songs. A Christmas tree floats above the trenches. The French, German, and Scottish officers meet in no-man’s land and agree on a cease-fire for the evening. Soldiers mingle and wish each other “Joyeux Noël”, “Frohe Weihnachten”, and “Merry Christmas”. They exchange chocolate, champagne, and photographs of loved ones. For a brief moment humankind recognizes itself.

In a 2015 article in the Washington Post one of my favorite poets, Jane Hirshfield, discusses how poetry can change the world. She says: Poetry is about the clarities that you find when you don’t simplify. Poetry is about complexity, nuance, subtlety. Poems also create larger fields of possibility. The imagination is limitless, so even when a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing poems give you is the sense that there’s always, still, a changeability, a malleability, of inner circumstance. That’s the beginning of freedom.”

Painting draws from the same well. And perhaps proper wrapping has a few drops in there too. To imbibe in these things with like hearts and minds provides much-needed harmony in a topsy-turvy world. It is a reason to celebrate. As are these holidays with their seemingly silly traditions like more elaborate wrapping. Small reminders of our humanity. and how lucky we are!

So cheers to you fellow-wrappers, poets and artists! Celebrate the season! And let’s look forward to a redemptive 2017.

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Bits and Pieces

Sitting in a restaurant, driving to work, walking the dog, cleaning the house, what do you see? What are the images that pop into your head when asked that question? Whatever flashed in the mind’s eye in each of us is a thread that knits together our visual world. There are likely similarities in what we see, but there is also a unique way in which we each organize the chaos of constant visual stimulation.

How much and how often is attention paid? Is it all “white noise” that clouds any clear vision? Can we sift out visual metaphors that translate into meaning? What can we discover by paying attention? Is there a way to see the same old stuff in a new light?

Artist John Evans lived in a small apartment in the East Village from 1964 through 2000. For 37 years he made a daily practice of collecting bits and pieces of surrounding images and found objects, composing them in a diary format. The New York Times (JOHN STRAUSBAUGHJAN. 26, 2005) described his work as “a world of romantic invention conjured out of odd juxtapositions of weird and familiar things.”

“In rescuing and dignifying scraps of local life — a matchbook from a bar, someone’s tossed-off photo-booth portrait — Mr. Evans can be thought of as a historical preservationist, operating on an unusually intimate scale. Yet his own moods seem reflected in how he handles the materials. In one day’s collage, ticket stubs and candy wrappers explode like fireworks against an ebulliently bright background. In another, juxtaposed images of Hitler and Oliver North make a grim political statement.”

Our own sensibilities may not lead us to his style of recording, but making a practice of awareness of what we actually SEE rather than what our daily script tells us that we see is a way to stimulate inspiration.

It’s easy to be attracted to and render images we deem beautiful or significant. But can we look a little harder and find ordinary elements that can become ideas?

This week the challenge will be to explore the house and the studio and the grounds, snap a few pics with your phone and use these images as a jump-off point. Look for things you’ve passed many times without noticing. See if you become aware of new relationships between things you’ve walked by for years. Is there a way that something in our surroundings would not only suggest a new work, but marry with a work in progress? Pay attention to scale and to negative space. Let your own moods be reflected. Actual collage elements can be utilized if desired.

Otis will help us print up to three or four of those photographed images. Then let them inform a painting/collage in some way. Other imagery from your inspiration file can be used to build a more complete picture, and/or an underpainting. Mix and match—play.

If you’re working on additional pieces like the 8 x8’s, use the opportunity to take the photos that can be used later. Or maybe a new awareness of surroundings will propel your current endeavor forward.

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Brushwork!

My studio mate, Angelina, is an oil painter.   She was classically trained and studied in Italy. Her work evokes the style of John Singer Sargent—lush, expressive, juicy. A painting session for her can include the use of 3 or 4 brushes. But sometimes only one. I was looking at a portrait she did of our daughter noticing the sketchy quality. The likeness looks like Kate, but not every muscle is fully formed, not every feature is examined. And the foliage in the background would be impossible to identify. The edges of the canvas were painted, not all the same color and the rough, dry brushstrokes gave the boundaries of the picture plane a lively quality.

Wandering into Gordon’s space I observed his process. He pours thin paint, then blends with a soft bristle brush. He combines that technique with impasto applied with a palette knife. His subject is also figurative, but has less form than Angelina’s. Thin veils of color merely suggest a figure. His palette is generally simple, not mixing much on the canvas. His color choices are frequently neutral. Line is often made by something he can’t control like a feather or a stick or a piece of semi-rigid plastic tubing that can contain ink.

The stories these two artists tell about the people they paint are very different. The psychological narrative is shown to the viewer, not only by line, shape, form and color on the canvas, but through the use of brush and paint technique.

I’ve always felt that acquiring these techniques comes best from the artist’s investigation of the materials while exploring their own psyche. Jackson Pollack, not the most articulate guy on the planet, but the guy who rocked the art world in probably the most dramatic fashion thus far, said that “Technique is just the means of arriving at a statement.” He also said: “Painting is a state of being. Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.” And “Each age finds its own technique…”

In our group at ArtHouse 23 watching the development of style and technique affirms Pollock’s ideas. Most people have developed very different styles that reflect their sensibilities. This week we’re going to play with that a little and push the envelope. We’ll look at paintings by a few artists and observe possibilities, then we’ll play.

Bring at least one underpainting that isn’t fully resolved but that has “good bones”. Using that painting as a structure you will “hang” brush technique on it based on my calls. Bring something that isn’t precious. I will lead you to apply certain technique on certain passages. You will need to determine on what passages to work when. It will be impossible to know the end. This may or may not take the full class time so have other work also.

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Making things easier doesn’t make people happier-The Lodge

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Last week a noteworthy message nudged me—twice. First I bumped into that beautiful commencement speech by Bhanu Kapil (sent to you all) given to MFA grads at Goddard College. (http://thewriterintheworld.com/bhanu-kapils-goddard-college-mfaw-commencement-speech/ ) Her story is of failure, hers and her fathers, and how failure itself can be inspiration. Two days later a Creative Mornings talk left me with the temporary tattoo pictured above. The message: “Fail Harder”.

What I have observed over many years painting and teaching painting is that the “failure” of even one wrong mark, one garish color or one awkward gesture, or the failure to see a proper angle, or a possibility is so uncomfortable that giving up becomes an option. Once you cross that threshold, if only briefly, the likelihood of success, however one defines it, is perhaps lost.

At the Wieden and Kennedy office the director of the creative team called “The Lodge” introduced “Needybot” to the crowd. (http://www.needybot.io/) The advertising agency uses this adorable robot for research of how humans interact with technology.

But for me, I saw the Needybot as a metaphor for the muse or the creative impulse. That impulse often does not respond to the conscious mind and its lists of tasks. It’s very existence is one of need. (Ever see the movie, “The Muse”?)

The Needybot is a heat-seeking robot about the size of R2-D2 with a fuzzy coat and one large eye. As the busy folks hurriedly move through the halls of Wieden and Kennedy, Needybot stalks them. Stands in their way. Impedes their supposed progress. It makes them reconsider, requires their consideration. By having their prescribed paths interrupted they are forced to pay attention and perhaps become more interested in possibility. Needybot keeps them off-balance and empathetic—empathetic to the needs of the of this soft-spoken, little, furry creature that perhaps stands in for one’s own creative voice.

It creates conflict—shall I get this thing “done” that I am planning or in the process of? Or shall I listen? Remember R2-D2? It was stuck on the same incomplete sentence. Over and over. “Help me Obi Wan Kanobi, you’re my only hope.” Persistent empathy generated by that little voice had the ability to guide and inspire the Rebels to something that seemed unattainable.

That’s why we do exercises to keep you off-balance—uncomfortable—require paying attention. It may feel like failing, but….

Failure is essential for success. By embracing it and enduring you may, in the words of Ms. Kapil: “shine as brightly as when you first begun”.

May the force be with you.

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Model Madness

Why is figure work so exciting for some and so daunting for others? No question-throughout art history working from the model has been an essential part of learning. Artists would pay for a model before buying dinner.  But it is HARD.  And one feels silly and rude for potentially making someone look like a troll. It can be very intimidating.

However, there is no better way to learn to draw than practicing with the figure. Drawing skill is one of the most gratifying aspects of knowing a visual language. It isn’t essential to visual expression, but it is satisfying to be able to translate what you see on to the paper or canvas. (Although the lack of drawing skills should never prevent you from painting. That’s like not visiting a foreign country because you didn’t speak the language.)

In addition to the challenge of seeing and understanding form, shadow, contour—like how an arm tapers at the wrist and what makes it look round or how to foreshorten a leg, the model offers so much more. There is a new energy in the room. An exchange. Think the difference between listening at a concert and listening to recorded music. Live listening requires more. And it gives back.

“The living model, the naked body of a woman, is the privileged seat of feeling, but also of questioning… The model must mark you, awaken in you an emotion which you seek in turn to express.” (Henri Matisse)

A good model, and we are lucky to have a couple on which we rely, will feed your connection to an emotional state. Feeling and communicating that emotion is the goal. Getting there is an interplay of seeing and connecting and marking—it takes practice.

So this week you can go crazy and design your own creative “problems” to explore the model.  (After we start with the gesture warm-ups, of course.)

Here are some ideas:

BLIND CONTOUR DRAWING—WITHOUT LIFTING THE PENCIL, CHARCOAL, ETC., OFF THE PAGE.

DRAW, THEN PAINT WITH YOUR NON-DOMINANT HAND.

EXPLORE THE NEGATIVE SPACE AROUND THE MODEL.

WORK ON A DARK SUBSTRATE OR AN INTERESTING GROUND. A GROUND CAN START WITH A COMPOSED COLLAGE OR ANY RANDOM TEXTURE. USE TISSUE PAPER, DRESS PATTERNS, ETC.

WORKING ONLY IN LIGHT AND DARK—NO MID-TONE. NO LINES (YOU CAN SOFTEN EDGES LATER.)

DRAW BODY PARTS SEPARATELY—THEY CAN ALL BE ON ONE PAGE, OR NOT.

USE A VERY LONG STICK TO LESSEN YOUR CONTROL.

GIVE YOURSELF A SHORTENED TIME PERIOD TO MAKE QUICK SKETCHES (90 SECONDS, OR?) DO THEM ALL ON ONE PAGE. COMPOSE. EDIT. PAINT.

CUT UP A DRAWING OF THE FIGURE AND COLLAGE IT, THEN DRAW ANOTHER POSE OVER.

DRAW TWO POSES ON ONE PAGE, THINK ABOUT CROPPING HEAVILY, OR NOT.

WE HAVE DRAWING BOOKS IN THE STUDIO, THEY WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR GUIDANCE. (Me too.)

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Curiouser and Curiouser

Think about what happens when you set out to start a painting. What is your approach? Do you have an idea you want to express, something clever, political or something fun you thought of while doing something else? Are you trying to honor someone or something—a tradition, a time gone by, a loved one, or a place of beauty? What visual images and elements move you?

How do you start? And if your idea is proving difficult or unsatisfactory, how do you proceed? Are you frightened, just a little, of being wrong, of making a mistake, of putting down a mark that is awkward or just not what you intended? What if you prepare and be willing to be “wrong”–knowing that being wrong is completely subjective? Or better yet, what if you try to withhold judgment and just observe?

Painting is one of the few activities where right and wrong and good and bad matter little. Awareness, connection, authenticity, curiosity, imagination and letting go of expectations are all FAR MORE IMPORTANT! Let’s say you draw a tree that you intended to look like a mighty oak, or the tree that held Newton’s apple, or something you saw a young Polynesian climb to retrieve a coconut and instead of any of those, it looks like a lollipop. What do you do? The first likely impulse is to feel embarrassed. And one of the things I see people do so often is repeat the same moves, pressing harder with more paint making the “flaws” bolder, then giving up in disgust.

What if instead of self-flagellation you just get really curious? What if you observe your marks and your shapes and ask questions about them? Ask questions about why—why does it look like a lollipop? why doesn’t it have the power of an oak? and how does the color, the quality of line the brush work, etc. effect what you are seeing? And what can be done differently? Don’t answer your questions at first, just look and ask.

Imagine. Instead of trying harder you try something different, even very different. Ask yourself about possibilities. If your skillset isn’t quite there yet to make something look like what you want it to, what else can you do? Can you simply stay curious about options rather than “fixing”?

There is a time for judgement and fixing. But it isn’t early and it isn’t often. That’s one reason we do exercises that take control out of your hands. By following unexpected, even startling strategies, you are forced to let go. And in turn, possibilities arise.

A reminder of some things to try– glazing, working on the piece upside down, working with your non-dominant hand, etc. Imagine repeating your lollipop tree until you have a forest of them. Take a tool and scrape the paint over the page. Maybe you end up with a mess—or maybe not. Maybe you’ve discovered shapes and color that remind you of something else and your idea changes entirely. Or maybe you just end up with a thick layer of mixed color that looks like not much and then you use a tool to carve a tree/ trees into the fresh slab of paint. Then ask how you can connect to that new concept. What other things can you add to this list to change a piece of paper or canvas—collage; sanding; scrubbing, dripping, spraying, etc. etc.?

Be like Picasso who said: “I do not seek; I find”. Be willing to just “do” until you “find” a way.

(He also said: “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Which is why we bother in the first place. And this: “To draw you must close your eyes and sing.”)

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