Last year I rediscovered a cache of some of those old paintings, and was interested to notice that some of the same themes I still pursue in my visual art were already fully-formed: transformation, shamanic and archetypal themes, cosmic imagery, mountains and moons. It is always interesting to learn that some of the themes that you thought you'd grown into along the way were in fact there from the very beginning.
I still don't think of myself as a painter, and probably never will.
Nonetheless most of the art I've made over the past month or so has been: painting.
Kandinsky's Poem, 2012
Collage, papier-maché, altered books, acryclic painting, brush calligraphy, photography, on watercolor paper, 30"x40"
This is a piece I made to donate to a fundraiser being done by the local public library to support literacy education in the community. Literacy was something both of my late parents felt strongly about—our family when I was growing up was a family of avid readers who were not averse to pulling out the dictionary or encyclopedia even while at the dinner table to answer a question—and both of them volunteered to teach literacy at the local public library. So, for me, when I was given the chance to donate art for a literacy fundraiser, it was a chance to connect to my parents, and also to a cause I myself support.
I made this piece to be donated. But as I worked out what I wanted to do, I realized I wanted to start with an acrylic underpainting. Bright colors, that would show through the papier-maché layer, which consisted of prints of my own photos and pages from an old two-volume dictionary. I highlighted the key words on the pages torn from the dictionary using Japanese brush calligraphy materials.
The altered books aspect of this collaged piece was in fact the central aspect, and the origin of the project. The call for donations from local artists, for the library fundraiser, was specifically about altered books. This is a form of art-making using recycled materials that I've been interested in for a few years, but never worked in before. An altered book is essentially an artwork made from an existing bound book, or its pages, or form, or materials. The creative possibilities are endless. I remember seeing examples of books a few years ago from the Berkeley Public Library, books that had been vandalized or damaged, and were given to local artists to make into altered books. In other words, to be given new life. That was spirit of this local library literacy fundraiser, and books were provided by the library, but you could also use your own. I used this old two-volume dictionary that I found at the local thrift store for almost no money at all. And no doubt will make more art from these volumes, as well as some others I have set aside to work with.
After finishing this large collaged piece, I continued to feel an urge to paint with acrylics. So I went and got a few more large sheets of fine printmaking paper, and have been painting. I am almost done with one more large painting, which is purely a painting. I've been working with large swatches of paint, teaching myself both saturated color and dry-brush techniques. I've been reading books about acrylic painting in the public library, and making notes. I've been thinking about putting more art on the wall over my bed in my bedroom; and what better thing to put up there than something I made. I don't care if anyone thinks it's narcissistic, but most of the time I'd rather make art to put up than buy it. I don't call myself a painter, but I am an artist.
As I've been working on this large painting, I've been making photographs of it as I proceed. Both to document the process, so I can retain what I've learned by doing, but also because I had the idea to make detail photographs (detail, meaning close-ups of sections of the artwork) for the purposes of stock photography. Such abstracted forms could be used in future for stock backgrounds, as elements of illustrations, and more. I have worked on this large painting over two or three sessions so far, and have one or two more sessions to go before I reach the point that I have envisioned in my mind.
One reason I referenced painter Wassily Kandinsky in the collages piece I donated to the fundraiser was that Kandinsky, as well as being one of the founders of Modernist abstract painting, wrote extensively about his theories of emotion in painting, about how he wished to reduce representation in painting to pure emotive form, to tell a story in an abstract way. I've written here before about abstract realism in photography; now I approach the topic from the direction of painting, as influenced by Kandinsky.
What I am intending to do with this artwork I am making, despite refusing to label myself as a painter, is brushwork that evokes emotion.
Brushwork can refer to calligraphy as well as painting, writing as well as representational art. Indeed, in Chinese and Japanese art history, brushwork refers to all of the above; because writing in those cultures is ideogrammatic rather than alphabetic, and done with a brush and ink, there are even literary forms that reference the brush in their definitions. So, for me, brushwork includes more than painting.
I am interested in Kandinsky's ideas about how abstraction can still evoke emotion. Almost in the same way music does, not through specific image but through form and mood and color and rhythm. Abstraction that evokes feeling. Which of course is what the American abstract expressionists were pursuing in the middle of the 20th Century. But they were painters, and I'm not.
So, since I work in multiple media, it's only natural that I would import my paintings into the digital realm and work with them there as well. I've been experimenting combining text and illustration, for example.
Storm Coming Near, 2012
I go back and forth between digital and actual painting in this work, which to me seems entirely natural. Paintings will become elements of digital illustrations, be used in stock photos, and will influence art made directly in the digital realm.
One of the most interesting parts of this ongoing exploration has involved painting on photographs, both actual and digital.
What I am exploring now is painting digitally on my tablet computer, my iPad. I am using several apps to paint digitally on the tablet, both in terms of making original illustrations and calligraphic pieces, and also in terms of painting on photographs.
I am particularly enjoying making paintings from some of my best photographs of the Southwestern United States, photos made on recent roadtrips. This is a process of using the photograph as a reference for making an original painting.
Vermillion Cliffs, NM, 2012
Sometimes I start by painting-over a photograph using digital painting software. I can sample and replace the colors in the original image, or I can go wild. I can make the forms and elements of the piece realistic in one area, and completely abstract in another. I find myself usually preferring to veer towards abstract realism.
I have no real desire to learn how to paint or draw photo-realistically, but that is what most instructional books emphasize. If I want a photo-realistic image, I make a photograph, because I am a professional photographer. I have those tools and those skills. I am much more interested, in drawing and painting, in loose realism, or abstract realism.
As with photography, I often begin with a landscape, a place and a time, a mood, an evocative moment. In making a photo, I often wait a long time for the light to be perfect, before I release the camera shutter. Photography can be an art that teaches you extreme patience. You learn to look at your subject a very long time, to see it, before you make your image. These are often the kinds of images I choose to make into painted versions.
Shapes and forms. Elements of color. Mood and feeling. Abstract realism. Emotion and music and lighting and those times when art takes you out of your mind and into your larger self.
That's what I am seeking as someone who has been painting lately. I am not a painter, and don't want to get stuck in that definition, which limits and skews as often as it liberates. I'm aware of art history, but I'm not dwelling on it. I'm just making some paintings.
This trend is continuing and growing. I am also making little illustrated visual haiku, calligraphic illustrations, sketches and drawings and little scraps of ideas. I'll write more about that later.