“Nobody knows the anguish and torment that has gone on underneath this tranquility,” I found myself saying as I gave the painting its final varnish. No dealer, no collector, will ever know. Perhaps some future black light may alert a researcher to the extent of my struggle.
I changed the sky at least four times. It seemed straight forward when it was born up in the mountains. It was the fine tuning that started to defeat me. I had surrendered and moved down to the edge of Lake O’Hara to the place where Sargent painted a composition without a sky. I helped myself to his power. “Mine is the horny hand of toil,” he said. In 1916 he had spent two weeks on that one painting. That gave me hope. His final stroking appears casual, almost impatient. Cursory strokes speed over a well-thought-out underpainting. His painting is rich with reflected light, clever elements in receding distance and the air between, nuances of snow in light and shade, sunlight burning out the complexity of the mountain rubble. Cruising a print of Sargent’s painting and comparing it to the actual scene I saw that it was carefully observed and masterfully reported. In a letter to his cousin Mary he had referred to his previous painting — Twin Falls — as “a repulsive picture.” It, too, took him two weeks. Who was I to expect to knock off a masterpiece in an afternoon?
I proceeded with my modest efforts up and down the hill. Desire ebbed and waned. Onlookers shook their heads. I suppose it’s the puzzle part of art that keeps a lot of us at it. Like a game of chess where you can change your moves. Like a game of chess where the game can go on indefinitely until you finally have your selfish little way. Where sins are simply forgiven by the addition of paint. Where simple bravado covers up defeat.
PS: “Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Esoterica: “Whoa!” says my watercolour friend Donna Jo Massie, flicking paint. “Not so easy to hide defeat. That’s why watercolour makes nice people a bit crazy. Watercolour is full game-plan plus full attention. No sleeping at the switch like you sometimes do in oil and acrylic.” She’s right. We’ve been getting away with murder.
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
by Jane Lake, Boulder City, Nevada, USA
I have a closet full of defeats. We’ll call them 16″x 20″ canvasses covered in layers of oil paint. It’s not as if these defeats came about easily. I reworked some of them three or more times to see if I could raise them from the dead. Alas, alack, they are truly dead! I’ve placed them in the “memorial closet” to give myself time to mourn their passing! Every now and then I open the closet and “review” the ghastly mess in there. I can’t bring myself to throw them away. Why can’t I just leave them alone, just let it go, get rid of them? I must be hanging on to the concept of the painting instead of the end result, yes? The initial concept was so magnificent rattling around in my head but somehow got lost in the translation from that point to the canvas. The best laid plans… The consolation I get from the multitude of failures in the memorial closet is that I learned something from each one of them… little bits of technique good and bad. Perhaps my closet is actually archiving the path to my masterpiece! What a nice thought.
by Larry Moore, Florida, USA
I can empathize with that feeling. It just comes with the territory. It’s so much easier to see the shortcomings in another artist’s work than finding them in my own… leaving me with a perpetual feeling that there is something wrong with everything I do, I just can’t tell what it is. Add to this, the fact that it’s very difficult to sell my landscape paintings here in Central Florida. I’m told that I’m competent enough but I can’t give these things away. Not that I need the validation, but it would be nice and if I could make a living at this I’d be able to do more of it. There are times when I really just want to give up and sell shoes.
by Annette Waterbeek
Regarding defeats with watercolours and the repeated tries to fix an area you’re not happy with: With watercolour you must stay alert — you can push it only so far. You cannot fool the viewer — he will see your struggles. There’s no cover-ups — a slip, an interruption, a sprinkle of rain could mean sudden death to the piece. What to do when you feel defeat is imminent? Scrub out? Crop? Turn to opaque media? Mixed-media? Or flip out and burn? I have… cropped… ripped… experimented… haven’t been able to burn yet… it is so permanent… but that day will come. I’ve found that defeat in one piece only stokes the fires for the next.
Need all kinds of art
by Lynn Aisawa
I had to reply to Julie Sawyer who wrote the “crap” letter in the previous clickback. We need all kinds of art, the more the better. I looked at the two artist sites she quoted. While it’s not anything I care for, I would never think to call it “crap”. These artists do beautiful work that holds meaning for many others. I for one love Rothko and Co. along with many other modern artists. Anyone who can make a single color interesting to look at is amazing to me; and if it’s hypnotic as well? We each of us can only do our own art, in our own way. No use worrying about the other guy, especially if you find him incomprehensible.
No kids here
The reason Mark Rothko didn’t paint children was that he couldn’t paint children. He tried. The tender depiction of children “defeated” him. He had to turn his hand to something that was less complex.
The eclipse in Mark Rothko’s work in a hundred years will not be based on “shock” or “glow.” The work will then be seen as dull, uninteresting and unchallenging. A lot of public art, by then, will be a mix of entertainment and perception challenge. As an example of current trends there is the huge refurbished mill in Gateshead, UK, called the Baltic Centre for Creative Arts. Here, performance and installation artists work and display in one big happy, ever changing, art factory. The “Baltic” can be seen at www.balticmill.com
Sit behind their eyes
by Nicoletta Baumeister, Barbados
I do understand that those who paint flowerpots and cats might not understand painters like Rothko, but I for one see value in sitting behind his eyes. With all of the painters who eschew recognizable subject matter (or properly put, try to eliminate their subjective viewpoint), in favour of experimenting with paint in space for paint in space’s sake, I am able to see the true value of the canvas and the paint. Once I understood what the artist’s line of questioning (process) was, I returned to their work with new lenses. What they do in investigating and developing their sensitivities to the dynamics of spatial relationships in the white room we call our canvas or paper allows us other ‘object’ painters the perspective to analyse and improve our work through the differences, both seen and felt. IE: Try thinking about painting a field of nothing but waving alpine grasses. Or perhaps the up-thrust face of a sheer Rocky Mountain cliff? Where are you putting the viewer?
by Julie Sawyer
Mark Rothko is just another example of the modern art crap or abstract art as it’s labeled, that I was talking about in my last letter. Why is it considered art? It has none of the elements that art is supposed to have. He said it himself: “There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing.” (Mark Rothko) His paintings are about nothing. The abstract artist paints what he sees, he sees not much, and doesn’t feel much either. You who defend him are blind to true beauty and use this lame excuse for easily slapping on a glob of paint on a canvas and calling it art. I, and many artists are truly offended and are angry of such lame attempts. We have every right to be angry. Is it any wonder that the world is getting worse instead of better?? The world continues to accept and find excuses for a lot of the wrong, foolish, disobedient, defiant, selfish and the lazy minimalist. It seems no one really wants to work hard and put time and effort into their work. They just want to make a quick buck no matter how it affects the rest of us. Kind of like the present big CEO’s screwing us. They got their money and they don’t care about others. To them we are suckers. Well some of us are, not me, I don’t buy it! It makes me want to quit my art and do something that is not tinged with such dishonor.
Antidepressants and creativity
by Jonathan Smith
I am a songwriter in the San Francisco Bay Area, and have been on an antidepressant (Celexa) for about 9 months. Over these past few months I have felt more confident, free, and generally healthier mentally, than ever in my life. Lately, however, I have noticed that my songwriting has been more of a chore than anything else. It’s not that I can’t write — it’s more like I feel uninspired, or simply dead musically, while trying to pound out the chords of a new song. This is really freaking me out — and I am starting to suspect that I am coming up against a huge conflict — a choice between peace of mind, and creative expression. I admit that partially this is a neurotic worry that may be a passing phase, hopefully, but it has been creeping in over the past month or so. I just read the letter on your site about creativity and artistic expression, and it is the first info I have read on the subject… Needless to say it is validating my worry and has pushed me a little further towards a decision to stop or reduce the medication. The good news is I am undergoing psychoanalysis (5 days a week) and I hope, at least, that without the medication I will be sane enough to continue life somewhat enjoyably. Overall — I am starting to realize that this is uncovering a huge question in my life that has perhaps been growing underneath the surface for some time: “What does my art mean to me, and is it dependent upon my being unhappy or anxious?” If this is the case, damn I have a big decision to make, don’t I? I think that it is probably not as black and white as I am seeing it. Any helpful advice would be appreciated.
(RG note) All drugs, while alleviating specific stresses or problems, interfere to some degree with other functions. These include sex-drive, ambition, energy levels, and creativity. In my opinion, the drug user must come to a compromise position — together with the advice of his doctor — and fine-tune drug intake in order to be able to continue those other activities that make life worthwhile. Artists with first-hand experience will undoubtedly write to you and some may copy to us here. We will be glad to publish insight on this matter. I might add that when you mention that your songwriting has been more of a chore the last few months — many artists who are not on antidepressants or any other medication mention this condition as part of the normal ebb and flow of desire and facility that occurs in any creative person.
Gluing canvas to boards
by Nyla Witmore
When I travel abroad, I take pre-cut canvases. When they’re dry, at home, I mount them using archival glue, to gatorboard. (The Miracle Muck Company told me their’s is not archival so I stopped using that.) Although I spread glue with a credit card pushing the goo to the edges, affix it to gatorboard and then put parchment paper on top of that (to absorb moisture) and then stack some books and let it sit overnight… I still get a bending and warping that stays bent. QUESTION: Does it matter if the image is face down or face up when setting beneath books? Do I have too many books? Should I slightly moisten the opposite side of the gatorboard, the side without the art and glue — so both sides start out with similar moisture content? Any solutions? P.S. I’ve had this same problem with a few pieces in every batch I’ve ever done, whether I used Miracle Muck or the archival stuff.
(RG note) The size of the canvas is important. Sizes over about 16 x 20 inches tend to warp when mounted on almost anything (gatorboard, masonite, plywood, etc.) unless a “chassis” is attached to the back of the mounting medium — A chassis is a series of battens glued or screwed to the back. Here’s my fail-proof system: I use mahogany panels — generally one quarter of an inch thick. These are dipped or completely painted back and front and edges with acrylic medium. When dry another layer of acrylic medium is painted or rolled onto the canvas and onto the wood. Brayer (or credit card) off the bubbles from the middle to the edges and then weigh down. I face them down onto a soft carpet so as not to flatten the impasto. A few books overnight are better than a lot of books. Three Britannicas might be typical for a 12 x 16. I actually use a book-press and don’t grind it down too hard. Cut the edges with a blade. There’s no warping and it’s as archival and mould-free as you can get.
by Brian Simons
Thanks for maintaining The Resource of Art Quotations. I would like to ask if the quotations are protected, copyrighted or licenced in any way. I have included some of them in course material for my painting classes. Are they free to use as one sees fit, providing the author is mentioned? Any help on this is appreciated.
(RG note) For the most part short quotations are in the public domain. Authors or authors’ heirs might have a case if they thought someone was abusing their copyright — say in the case where someone might reproduce whole chapters of someone else’s book. We have never been challenged. As far as we can see, contemporary authors, art educators and artists are complimented to have their thoughts included with others. However, we do appreciate when people give credit to the Resource of Art Quotations as this helps bring others to this valuable resource.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Janet Rasmussen of Fort Saskatchewan, AB, Canada, who writes, “Can you hold my email letter until Aug. 31? I am going to Atlin, BC to paint for a month. If you check out the website www.atlinart.com you will see where I will be. I will be having my bone marrow transplant in November. I will send you some pictures when I get home of the paintings I will do. I am taking the Alaska Marine Highway from Prince Rupert, I leave tomorrow. I’m painting because I couldn’t take enough clay on the bus.”