A Painting Journal
Aurorae, acrylic on paper, 2012
A painting journal
Trying something semi-new. Keeping a journal as I paint. Writing down thoughts in the pauses between painting during a session. Just as a record of the creative process.
Listening to music, while I paint, on random shuffle on iTunes on my laptop. Keep in mind that on my studio computer, my iTunes library can now play for over 190 days continuously, with no repeats. All kinds of music, truly random.
Thursday, November 8
Feel like painting today. There is sunlight streaming in for the first time in weeks. There’s one painting that I want to finish, now.
Don't be afraid to paint over something you liked before, but which didn't work for this painting. I am finding myself wanting to finish one of the “Lights” (Aurora Borealis) series of paintings today, after having it set aside for weeks. I have the iTunes music library on shuffle, listening to random pieces while painting. All over the avant-classical pop rock map. Copland to Patsy Cline to books on CD to Kate Bush.
Several layers of dry rush blue night sky, over existing backgrounds. Then the luminosity of the aurorae themselves. Lots of edge softenings, nuances, translucencies.
Even though I started this painting with bold geometric shapes, I've moved away towards something more fractal, more natural. Follow the brush. Bold and solid under layers yield to thinner, translucent, feathered upper layers. It looks better that way.
Because of the way I'm painting right now, or because of the abstract-realist subject matter, I find myself using large flat brushes. Angled strokes, really rather calligraphic. Sometimes the brushtrokes form lines and surfaces like geographic texture underneath the more visible layers.
Peter Gabriel to science fiction soundtrack creepiness. “He's got a ray gun!” Melodic punk Bob Mould. Zen shakuhachi.
The painting darkens but the lights still shine through.
Thursday, November 8
The next layers will lighten the painting up again. Let the dark over-layers dry for awhile. Then continue. Often I don't let the acrylics totally dry, because I do like the slight mixing that happens when you dry brush paint over a still slightly wet layer. The same kind of mixing that happens in nature, layers of sedimentary rock feathering and mixing together as they form, bleeding color from minerals leaching into the matrix.
Continuing to photograph each painting in progress, with the idea of using these closeups and sectional photos of color and brushstroke as painted stock backgrounds. Might even create and sell CDs of original stock on my own, of these my own materials. Why not? No one else has them, because no one else has these paintings in progress.
Photographing the painting in progress is also a way of looking at it, contemplating it, looking more closely.
Quick sunset of oncoming winter. There goes the last of the natural light. Even in the failing light, though, continuing to paint, kitchen lights turned on now.
Sometimes the texture of the paper still comes through, as do the lines of brushstrokes on lower layers.
Of course lighting affects mood. Color does as well. Despite what the neuroscientists claim, I don't think that's hardwired, I think it still has some culturally-bound factors. A lot of neuroscientists are not even aware that their own fundamental assumptions about what they observe are culturally-bound; unaware that their cultural bias is Western-scientific; as opposed to, for example, Inuit-mythic or Hindu-Buddhist-cosmological. Is a fish aware that it’s breathing water?
Color palette and language are not the same from culture to culture. What is held in common are the perceived colors of natural world objects. Red berries on forest plants around the world are poisonous often enough to humans to be of note. But there is no equivalent color in the northern Midwest to the color of young rice in the paddies, that unique yellow-green. So what we associate with those colors has at minimum some cultural input and conditioning with regards to how we interpret colors as emotions.
Yet I’m a North American, born on Turtle Island, and my roots for this kind of painting that I find myself doing are in Kandinsky and other branches of early Modernism, from the period before Modernism went ultra-rational, began to worship logical-positivism, and threw away all of its early vestiges of both irrationality and mysticism.
People forget that some of the key branches of early Modernism were deep explorations of the newly-theorized unconscious self, the realm of dreams and myths and archetypes; that got discarded in favor of rational utilitarianism. Not always an equal tradeoff. What the expressive color, the color of expression, in my painting means might mean what it means only to me, but as Kandinsky notes, if the experience of viewing the painting evokes an emotional, or mythopoetic, response in the viewer, all is good.
Laurie Anderson runs into Coldplay. Then 40s pop hits. A favorite slow movement from a Vivaldi cello concerto. Truly random music choices. The BBC Radio drama of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Rest awhile. Make some more photos of the painting. Think about starting dinner.
Thursday, November 8
I'm not remotely tired of photographing these paintings as I make them. It's not really about recording the process, more about watching change. Each working period yields a new painting. The painting you start with is not always like the painting you end with, and it might change several times during the process. Eventually it tells you when it's done, and you stop.
That's something a lot of my non-artist friends never seem to understand: listening to what the work tells you it wants. Non-artists all too often think art-making is all a conscious act of will, as though it were all planned out, pre-designed, engineered to the artist’s willful blueprint. Well, sometimes you do start out that way, but it almost never ends up exactly as you pre-visualized. It moves. It always has a will of its own. The artist doesn't control things as much as people think. There's a lot of intuition involved.
One of the things that makes a lot of current postmodern art so dry and emotionally flat, and often frankly boring, is precisely a lack of intuition, with too much conscious intent and control. Trust me, I've worked in advertising art and commercial design and illustration, where you are in fact working to a goal, an outline, a conscious intent. Art with a purpose, art intended to pass on a specific message. It's often still creative and fun, and sometimes even nuances, but it's not art that’s meant to endure. It’s meant to be seen once, clearly convey its message, then the reader moves on. Most art you see in magazines is like that. You don't desire to keep coming back to it, to look at it again and absorb it.
When I look at a Jeff Koons piece, for example, it's often very clever and flashy and interesting, really eye-catching and fun. But once I've seen it, I’m done with it. There’s no lingering. Looking at it a second time, I shrug. There is no desire to come back. It's commercial illustration writ large, and what it lacks is precisely that emotional intuition (Kandinsky again) that I find myself seeking from my own paintings. I don't tire of looking at them, or making photos of them.
Probably most artists feel this way about their own work, so it's hardly a revelation, I imagine. If it didn’t interest you as an artist, you wouldn’t return to it, or to doing it.
October Project. A movie soundtrack. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Cowpunk ditties. "I hate to wake up sober in Nebraska." Music rolling on.
Pause to make dinner. Ravel solo piano music.
Friday, November 9
Now we lighten up the colors again, so they emerge from the dark, glowing. Red glows over green.
Thinking ahead, planning ahead, envisioning in advance with the mind’s eye, what photographer Edward Weston called “pre-visualization,” is something I learned to do years ago as a graphic designer. You keep the goal in mind. You can hit the mental undo button to go back a step if necessary. You visualize what the end result will look like, and you approach that visualization even if you never quite match it in the real world. Imagination remains more malleable, in the end.
Working in layers on a painting, adding layers over layers, is for me analogous to working in layers in Photoshop. You know what's above and below, what masks and what shows through, how they interact. There is a similar sense of happy accident, the indeterminacy I often like to see in all the art I do. Being surprised as the artist is one of the things I love about the process. Discovery. The mystery of an unplanned but even better outcome.
Thinking about this further, layers are natural to me because they are prominent in my music, and the music I play and listen to. All those years spent playing Javanese gamelan, which is layered cycles of melody and heterophony. The influence of the Indonesian music I've studied and played on how I play in a jazz or rock combo setting, in which I also tend to think in layers. Avant-garde classical music and jazz, often structured similarly. I'm thinking of Steve Reich's cyclic gradual process music, and also more recently of Nik Bartsch and his ensemble Ronin, in which the tension between layers of melody and rhythmic cycles is integral to the music.
The underlayers of the painting show through in parts, in textures underneath, even when the pigments are covered over or mostly so. Remnants. Memories. Little bits of the past. Every painting is a history as well as a fact.
Saturday, November 10
Recently acquired the special edition DVD of Ed Harris' movie "Pollock," which is an excellent biopic about the artist Jackson Pollock, unsentimental and deeply moving. It’s not a psychoanalysis of Pollock, it’s a presentation of his life. The most interesting and intense parts of the movie are the scenes in which we see the artist at work, creating. To do this role, Harris learned how to paint. He built a studio behind his house, and began to learn. The paintings seen in the film are re-creations of Pollocks, made by the film studio art department, but also worked on by Harris on camera. This is one of the most realistic depictions of a painter in the films: there’s no faking it.
Watching Harris paint as Pollock painted, in character but also DOING the paintings is enthralling. You can see that the actor has absorbed how the painter moved, physically, which gives a strong clue to how he painted. This is a simply terrific film. It inspires me to take up the brushes again today and work some more.
Painting is becoming something that, once I've started doing it, becomes self-sustaining. I still have trouble with all the labels around art: painter, artist, etc. I'd rather than just do it than have a label I have to wear like a name badge. So I still don't think of myself as A Painter, I just paint. I’m happy to say I paint, and leave it at that.
Monday, November 12
This painting is now finished. No title yet, though I do know it’s part of the aurora borealis series. Call it simply “Aurorae” for now. I’ll put it up on the bedroom wall with the other painting, and continue to grow the cluster of paintings there, adding color to my room’s most empty wallspace.
Finished. Rather, I don't know what else to do with it. The end result is a bit darker than I had envisioned, nonetheless it's saturated with rich color. There are a lot of details here I like. Brushstrokes like waves of light and air.
Poet Paul Valery once opined, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." I feel some of that now. This painting is abandoned. I feel the need to go on, to work on other paintings. To do something new and unknown. To improvise.
In painting as in poetry, there comes a point after which more revision won't fix anything, and often makes things worse. I once was boggled to hear that a poet was teaching her writing workshop students that she sometimes revised a poem sixty times. I frankly find that either unbelievable or pathetic. If it takes that long to "fix" a piece of art, chances are you never will. Either it has defeated you already, or you've gotten stuck.
I don't feel that way about this painting, it just feels done. Abandoned, maybe, or perhaps it’s just telling me that it’s done. I don't know what else to do with it. I'm satisfied. I'm ready to move on to the next piece.