Wrestling Aligators

Sometimes staying stuck in the quagmire for a while is the best way to reap the benefits of faith and perseverance in the painting process.  I repeatedly witness (and experience) how uncomfortable it is to feel trapped in a place of dissatisfaction and unknowing while brush and paint seem to have minds of their own or when the skill set is not up for the challenge.  While struggling with a painting, one wants immediate relief and resolution when the “right” next step seems too elusive.  Sometimes suggestions and feedback from others provide help.  But many times the better path is to stay struggling.  It may seem harsh when you’re being passed by while you are in distress, especially when others are being praised. There are times when a life-line is the best choice. But very often it’s good practice to wrestle with the unseen “alligator” buried in the mud, and not succumb to a rescue. Sometimes the best path is to make more mud and fight your way out of that.

Feeling discouraged is a familiar state for an artist.  There are countless anecdotes about countless painters and their doubt.  Cezanne, perhaps the most famous “doubter”, as the French Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty begins his 1945 essay entitled Cezanne’s Doubt explains: “It took him one hundred working sessions for a still life, one hundred- fifty sittings for a portrait.”  And still, at the age of 67, after years of acclaim and financial success as a painter, Cezanne, who is considered to be the father of modern art, writes of his “state of agitation and confusion” about his “slow progress”.  Then he says in a letter to a friend: “Now it seems I am better and that I see more clearly the direction my studies are taking.” He died a month later.

That flickering between doubt and understanding is what someone once described to me as “like the filament in a light bulb”—it’s what makes illumination.

This week we will do a “follow the leader” exercise we’ve done before.  The origin is an exercise in which each person wrote down the steps to follow for a partner to begin a painting.  We worked in pairs and as there was an odd number in the class, I paired with Janet.  Her instructions were deceptively simple, but very challenging. Like on Cezanne’s journey, they required I look very, very carefully at my image and see in new ways. And perhaps like Cezanne, it worked best trying to see from more than one perspective at the same time.  I repeat—her instructions sounded too simple, but were actually very hard. I struggled. So we’re going to use them to guide us.  There was a small Saturday class that will have a second chance at the exercise. It will be fresh for everyone else.

Have source material, or plan to search for some in the studio.  You can use either an underpainting or a clean substrate.  But an underpainting will require intense concentration.  Consider a thick wash over it.

A few quotes from Cezanne: “I am progressing very slowly, for nature reveals herself to me in very complex forms; and the progress needed is incessant.”

“One has to immerse oneself in one’s surroundings and intensely study nature or one’s subject to understand how to recreate it.”

“An art which isn’t based on feeling isn’t an art at all… feeling is the principle, the beginning and the end; craft, objective, technique – all these are in the middle.”

And finally—“ When a picture isn’t realized, you pitch it in the fire and start another one!”

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