Our eyes move toward those things already on our minds. A man passionate about model railroading, for example, is likely to look at a painting of a locomotive. But deeper cues move our eyes. Some of these stimulants are with us from birth and are a part of our psyche. Others are learned, selected and personalized by life’s preferences.
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”To sense the invisible and to be able to create it,” wrote Hans Hofmann, “that is art.” An English clergyman wrote a letter 235 years ago proposing the idea of a giant but invisible star so massive that it swallowed its own light. Based on his calculations, this body could be detected by its gravitational effect on surrounding objects. In 1915, 114 years later, Albert Einstein was developing his theory of general relativity, building upon his already proven theories about gravity’s influence on the motion of light. Then, in the 1950s, astronomers with radio telescopes noticed that seemingly peaceful galaxies were emitting disproportionate amounts of energy from their cores.
Another studio visitor asked me what had changed since moving from New York to California. “Your work looks like it belongs here,” she said. I’d heard this before, though much of the work had been first imagined before my migration only 15 months earlier. Wishing to downplay the apparent apropos, I diverted attention to the question of whether my eyesight was improving. Pointing towards the immaculately in-focus San Jacinto mountain range, I stated, “The air — the light — there seems to be very little atmosphere here.” “Yes!” she exclaimed, “everything is so crystalline, so articulated; the mountains, the boulders, the stars.” We were fans of the clarity.
In Peter Sims’ book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, we see the value of making lots of small failures as a way to get to large successes. While Peter’s book is mainly aimed at entrepreneurs, it’s also of real value to us regular creative types. These days, cutting-edge gurus are passing the word around: “Fail often in order to succeed sooner.”
“You have a first image,” said Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, when describing his inspiration for his new film, Roma. “You just know that it is always going to be there. You don’t question that.” In Roma, almost every scene is meticulously composed and timed in a wide-angle tableau of human drama and staggering beauty. Drawn exclusively from Cuarón’s childhood memories, the film is shot from the perspective of his beloved nanny, Libo, and tells the story of her inner and outer life as an indigenous Mixtec domestic worker in 1970s Mexico City.
Last week, the most frequent questions jingling my inbox concerned artist’s websites. Fact is, most of them don’t work very well and artists often don’t know why. Some of course contain art that is substandard and any amount of smoke and mirrors won’t make them the dream machines that their owners desire. Having said that, many artist sites are wrongheaded and poorly done. I know this because over a period of several years I’ve had some pretty smart people fine-tuning my own site with an eye to troubleshooting and making it effective.
“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” said the jazz artist Miles Davis. His thought is one of the keys to avoiding the boringly ordinary — “the borinary.” Many works of art are what I call “one-two.” That is, they engage the mind and sensibilities only so far. Putting a half-filled wine glass into a landscape foreground, for example, turns borinary — for better or for worse — into a bit of a conversation piece. It becomes a “one-two-three.”
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes, stood near the harbour. It was constructed by Chares of Lindos over an eight-year period starting in 292 BC. Felled by an earthquake after only 56 years, as a pile of bronze shards and stone rubble it commanded just as much attention (a thumb, it was said, was larger than a man). Sold for scrap 800 years later, it took 900 camels to carry the remnants away.
Early on in my painting life, my dad made an observation about our creative differences. “You are, for the most part, an idea-driven artist,” he said. “I am, for the most part, subject-driven.” At the time, I’d been building a written list of titles for work not yet made, drawing from literary reference, word play and free associations with colour and forms pulled from nature. Meanwhile, my dad was cruising sketches he had made during a recent material-gathering trip, his ideas emanating from the memory and visual record of a specific place, time and experience.
A friend of mine (let’s call him Dino) entered retirement the other day and took up painting. You could say Dino has a life-long appreciation of art, but until now he has only thought about actually doing it. He went to a lumberyard and bought some wood for stretchers. He quietly helped himself to a bed-sheet from the family closet. He was thinking big. His work is huge. He primed with blue latex, then hit it with commercial acrylic, roller and brush.