In 1918, photographer’s apprentice Dorothea Lange set out from her home in New York City to travel the world with a friend. In San Francisco she was robbed, forcing her to abandon her plans and work as a photo finisher. Within a year Lange had established her own busy portrait studio in downtown San Francisco — she was twenty-three — but with the onset of the Great Depression, something happened. “The discrepancy between what I was working on in my portrait frames and what was going on in the street was more than I could assimilate,” said Lange. “I set myself a big problem. I would go down there… to see if I could grab a hunk of lightning.”
Like the kid (and the dad) in the Disneyland ad, I’m “too excited” to sleep. It’s a good feeling. Anticipation is one of the greater pleasures of love, travel, painting. Knowing that something exciting is going to happen, and more or less how, gives vitality. You set yourself up for it.
We all know the feeling when looking at a work-in-progress or even a blank canvas. You have an idea how the forms and spaces will evolve, how a look or a feel will be.
A subscriber who signed off as “Over The Hill Portrait Artist” wrote, “You must be one of those Millennials, they don’t think like we mature artists.”
Thanks, O.T.H.P.A. Millennials are the generation born between 1980 and 2000. While this rules me out, 80 million are in America alone — the largest age group in history — and many are artists. In a recent article for Time magazine, Joel Stein describes a calm-looking anxious person checking a smart phone hourly and sending and receiving about 80 texts per day. This is apparently a kind of stress-reducing tick caused by
Just for a minute, don’t think of right- and left-brain thinking — think simply of thinking and not thinking. At your easel or workstation, think of “thinking-it-out” and “not-thinking-it-out.” Glimpse into your own brain while in the act of art — when you’re actually moving a brush or some other tool. Try to analyze this brain activity systematically at the start, in the middle, and towards the end of a piece of work. Every one of us manifests a different percentage of thinking and not thinking. It’s this percentage — and the changes of percentages — that makes our work interesting both to our selves and to others.
A subscriber who wishes to remain anonymous wrote, “I can’t help wanting to begin again. It was in the beginning that I had the most fun, but now that I’m a professional with an audience and known style I’m not sure how.”
Thanks, Anonymous. Your email arrived while I was tying a bowline for an 80-year-old sailing captain. He watched from under a black wool fisherman’s cap, his eyes calm and crinkling upward. Not yet a sailor, I fed the line through and under itself, while a kind of mental untying occurred inside — a smooth pridelessness — and I surrendered to my vast unknowns.
My late friend Bert Oudendag used to open his oil tubes from their back-ends, squeeze the contents onto a steel tabouret and carefully fold in 50% by volume of stand oil, a small amount of copal varnish and a drop of cobalt dryer. He then put the mixture back into its tube and put the remainder in a glass jar. All this was in aid of an extended and more fluid brush stroke that gave his work a kind of Franz Hals character. He was particular about his stroke.
Until recently, a retired beekeeper named Burt Shavitz was living in a 400-square-foot converted turkey coop in Parkman, Maine. He had a refrigerator, a radio, cold running water, a wood stove, and the wag of his Golden Retriever’s tail. He called his home “Camp,” having built onto it 40 years earlier with scrap lumber and windows he’d found at the dump. When asked once if he needed the Internet, he replied, “Like a hole in the head.”
In the late twenties a young American artist and Cézanne enthusiast by the name of Erle Loran moved into Cézanne’s studio. For two years Erle wandered the countryside around Aix-en-Provence and photographed the scenes that the deceased artist had painted. The result was a remarkable and intelligent book. “Cézanne’s Composition,” now only in paperback, is a clear-headed artist’s analysis of what he thought was going on in Cézanne’s mind and, more importantly, what was going on in his pictures.
Louise and I left Glasgow after packing her digital piano, the Rhodes, the amp, the cables and the mixing deck into the back of her Vauxhall Corsa. We curled the off-ramp and headed north, the moorlands expanding around us in mounds of soft jade and broom. As time passed, our words awoke like an old engine — at first in little tumbles, then chugging with a warm hum. By late afternoon we’d crested the northwestern tip of Skye and arrived at a crofter’s house, now called Red Roof — a miniscule, chapel-like café with a pitched ceiling, a weaver’s guild, pottery studios, orbited by a flock of sheep. Artists’ spaces and holiday rentals sit hungry for future poets. I got out of the car and stood in the thousand-year-old wind.
Do you ever wander back to that time when you first started thinking about making art? Do you ever think of the vision you first had — how your art would be made, its themes, its look? How simple it all was then. For some of us we thought it was just a matter of learning the skills and enacting our vision.
Then, with a little seasoning under our belts, we modified, changed, expanded, contracted — we grew. Or perhaps we regressed.