There are lots of reasons to paint. This morning’s inbox included about a dozen. They ranged from “spiritual need” to “$1800.00.” Another subscriber mentioned, “A nice memorial for my friend’s gerbil ‘Alice,’ who recently passed away.” After her lengthy explanation I was not sure if it was her friend or the gerbil she was memorializing. Then there was the guy who said he was painting today because he didn’t feel like mowing the lawn. Ah yes, Spring.
“Spring has sprung, the grass is riz.
I wonder where the mower is?”
But I digress. No matter how seemingly banal your painting motivation might be, something else can be implicit in virtually every project. You just need to think of art-making as a form of tribute.
A tribute, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “a thing said, done or given as a mark of respect.” When you think of it, all of nature and a great deal of what mankind has done are worthy of tribute. Further, when you consider appreciation of beauty or history or even the possibility of life enhancement, our art takes on greater meaning and more power.
There’s a simple way to put this idea into action. When you approach a subject or a motif, pause and contemplate. Ask yourself what a possible back-story might be.
Recently, Peter Segnitz and I made a little video that tries to describe this attitude. It’s called “Painting as Tribute” and we’ve put it at the bottom of this letter.
Some of us may come by this attitude quite naturally. For others, it’s easy to get stuck in the gumbo of commercialism or clock watching, as if we had a job in a gerbil wheel factory. While our work has job-like elements, it’s not really a job. It’s a calling. It’s a supreme opportunity to honour and make permanent our time and place in the nature of things. With such an attitude, there’s a greater imperative to do it well.
PS: “The artist fills space with an attitude. The attitude never comes from himself alone.” (Willem de Kooning)
Esoterica: Without getting sidetracked by the self-importance of our creative missions, we all have an obligation to try to extract the maximum from every opportunity. Even that tiny gerbil — what a temple of design, miniaturization, spirit, persistence, forward planning. What wondrous lungs, heart, brain, nervous and digestive system. What miracle its DNA carried to her offspring from every cell. That gerbil is a subject so noble, so holy, that it deserves a considered attitude. “The whole world is a church.” (Sylvain of Athos)
Moment of tranquility
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
I need to paint. It’s not a “whether — or,” it’s a “must.” Thinking of a new painting frees my mind from the mundane everyday chores. When in the studio or out in the open fields, it is magic whether the painting or drawing is problematic or not. Life is too precious to miss. Painting life as it is or as a dream preserves my moment of tranquility. Every painting is a witness to much more than what I see. These perceptions draw me back to my childhood memories which randomly resurface in unexpected places.
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Subject elevated to tribute
by Katherine Harris, Bracciano, Italy
I agree that paintings are tributes — Think about it — whatever subject we deem worthy of realizing in a painting, we have first necessarily elevated to the category of a tribute. I always feel while I am painting, whether it’s a nature scene, a portrait or a still life, that I enter more deeply into an experience that might have begun as only a glance or a passing thought. Magic!
The blue rub
by Carmela Martin, MA, USA
I was watching a few of your video clips this morning and really enjoyed watching your process. I noticed in a couple of the paintings that at some point you went over the entire painting with blue paint on a rag. The “paint” seemed to come out of a small bottle and I wondered what it is you are using. Since the already painted work did not smudge, I’m guessing you were going over dry acrylic. Is that right?
(RG note) Thanks, Carmela. You’re right. That blue rub is Phthalo blue cut with water and acrylic medium to form a transparent glaze. Other colours I’m currently using as glazes include Cadmium orange, Process magenta and black. And yes, the underlying acrylic paint has to be dry — so I paint most of my paintings in two or three stages. However, the painting in the recent video Painting as tribute was done in Golden Open (slow drying) Acrylic, alla prima, that is, in one sitting.
by Luciano Botta, Trevignano, just outside Rome, Italy
I want to thank you for your bi-weekly letter which gives me new ideas every time, a new input to my work and to my life also. I just subscribed to your service and I feel grateful to your effort. A propos of the reasons to paint I would like to add a new one: there is an intellectual pleasure in spending time in this activity. I am an abstract painter and would be interested in all you can find and publish about abstract painting.
(RG note) Thanks, Luciano. I agree that abstraction can be an intellectual challenge as well as a pleasure. I’ve spent most of my life trying to understand abstract motifs and their charm. Stages in my quest can be found by cruising prior clickbacks. You need to read the introductory copy of each entry to get an idea what I’m trying to understand. I’m currently reading a wonderful book by Tina Dickey: Color Creates Light: Studies with Hans Hofmann. Hofmann was a great German-American art educator who had a powerful effect on many abstract painters. If I ever get to the bottom of the subject, you’ll be the first to know.
Art appreciation flourishing
by Melinda Wilde, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
This beautiful… image, music and words! I volunteer at our local after school art program here at Gabriola’s elementary school. I would love to show this to the kids. Maybe I’m fantasizing but on Gabriola Island I think art of all genres is appreciated by the majority of islanders just a little more than in other communities I have visited. An example would be the recent show I launched at a local gallery to which the grade seven teacher is taking her class as a field trip. That said, I’d love to get a copy of your “Painting as tribute” video to show my kids and my adult students and whoever else is interested.
(RG note) Thanks, Melinda. I truly wish it was possible to mail out a free disc to everyone who has asked for one. For the time being you need to go to our video page and use a laptop, an iPad or similar device. I’m sure the time is not far away when kids, for better or for worse, will have a terminal at every desk.
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Confessions of a fire demon
by Olinda Everett, Matlock, Derbyshire, UK
Your letter and website have become for me a source of thoughtful inspiration and also a means of staying in touch with reality. Over the years I have come to accept this concept of the humility that art fosters in us, as we realize that the small work we do is flawed but magical at the same time — personally, that is, as a means of becoming and growing — however imperfect in reality.
I am a potter, not a painter, though I used to paint in the past. Potting for me has the necessary front and back of life in it. I can be very dark in my work and I am certainly very serious about it being art. But I am very aware of it coming out of the kiln with the unintended consequences of my hubris and ambition in cracks, puddles, dirty crystals… I am afraid that pots do rather betray one more than the painting of a landscape might.
I spent fourteen hours tending to my creaking kiln yesterday and today opened the box to find the usual amazing mixture of unexpected results. Some better than others, ok. One piece in particular was a very rough almost childish piece made from simple slabs that had not been finished in any particularly elegant way. The reason was that I dried the piece on its side and that side, drying more quickly, cracked. So, I though, another test piece… But then I warmed to that flaw. I dribbled a very spiteful yellow stain on it and sponged on geometric shapes of overlapping gory colour. Then I covered the lot with a completely new and untested white glaze. The piece came out, toasted, rich, deep, foaming, its contours organically hinted at here and there by specks of half hidden colour. And it is ever thus; whenever I make something unplanned and really allow myself to engage freely with the piece, respond to it and listen to its voice, I get a really good result — one that I like, anyway. Your twice-weekly letter is just as encouraging and enlightening to me as if I were a painter and not a fire demon.
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Loss of a close friend
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
For the last decade, I had a wonderful friend and mentor named Lorne. Lorne was a lovely man who loved music and art and drove around in this ridiculous scooter. He spent half the year in Vancouver and wintered the other half in glorious Puerto Vallarta. We visited him last February and I asked him if he was happy there. I thought he might be getting bored living in a remote fishing village in the middle of Mexico. He said he loved it there and was “living in his Oasis.”
Lorne had a wonderful way of descrambling my life. He would say, “Just give me the bullets John” as I was trying to explain my current emotional and important colossal art hurdle. He would have me detangled and up and running in minutes with a new direction and full wind in my sails.
Sadly, the day after we left him in PV, this sweet, gentle man passed away. They said they found him in his chair, with his glasses still on and was watching TV. We had dinner with him the night before he died. We laughed and giggled like school chums and the last thing he said to me was he would see me back in Vancouver at my exhibition in April. He was scheduled to speak at my show.
I had a flurry of emotions the day I heard of Lorne’s passing. I was so terribly confused and the lack of information the Mexican coroner was giving, only increased my disbelief. There were a million phone calls and dozens of messages left on his face book page. There was a memorial a few days later; I just stood there and was very, very sad.
The week before Lorne passed away, he found this hideous ornate chair on the side of the road. I asked him what on earth he was going to do with this rotting piece of furniture. With that, Lorne’s eyes danced with excitement as he went on about how he was going to write his various hopes and dreams, aspirations and prayers all over the chair. Then, he was going to torch the chair and take the charred frame, shellac the frame and put red leather cushioning on it and make it his office chair. Two days later, we were in a remote field as he was madly scribbling all over the chair and then we doused it in gasoline. The flames must have been five feet high and the whole thing was a bit terrifying. Lorne was madly photographing it and giggling with glee.
The chair project was never finished. But I wanted to somehow pay tribute to my friend and highly influential mentor.
I painted a painting of this chair, blazed in Flames and it became the most unusual and highly spoken of painting in my recent collection. I wish sometimes I could say the perfect thing to sooth peoples’ emotions. I wish I could cry on cue at a funeral or memorial. And I wish that the most special people in my life could live on forever.
One thing I know I can do is paint my tears, paint my emotions and paint a tribute to the very special and wonderful people who have touched my life and will continue to influence the man I am today.
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Late Sunshine Before Rain, St. Just
watercolor painting, 15 x 22 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes so many people who wrote thanking Peter Segnitz and me for Painting as tribute. While the morning at the old farm was a fun experience in itself, I had no idea Peter was going to do such a sensitive job with such a high attention to detail. The video is relaxing and philosophic, but also contemporary. For me it was the first time I had two microphones sewed onto my fleecy.
And also James Keith Lanier who wrote, “The grass has riz, spring has sprung. The human song must be sung.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Painting as tribute…