Yesterday, Edward Vincent of Sydney, Australia wrote, “You often mention ‘contemplating’ a work in progress. I’ve found discussing a painting issue ‘out loud’ in private to be productive. Thoughts alone seem to be much easier to muddle up and lose track of than audible words. What do you think of this idea?”
Thanks, Ed. Brilliant. Now that you’ve let Joey out of the front pocket, I’ll fess up — I’ve been doing it myself for years. Oh, I’ve been caught a few times by people who walked into the studio without knocking. What’s really embarrassing is when the painting is doing the talking — often in a high, squeaky, wounded sort of voice.
Long ago, Robert Henri noted, “There’s no art without contemplation.” I first grabbed that quote when I was in high school. My earliest contemplations were mere pauses while I gave my work a “second opinion.” In those days I used to make written notes before I went back in. Later, I found my short-term memory to be good enough. Properly matured, the contemplation process is a combination of cruising for major errors, picking up specific minor but fixable boo-boos, and re-asking “what could be?”
Out loud, the conversation can go something like this:
Artist: “You’re boring me.”
Painting: “I’m sorry.”
Artist: “You’re too fiddly.”
Painting: “You could solidify me here with a dash of colour.”
Artist: “Good idea. Also, that little thing is not standing in front of that other thing.”
Painting: “That should be no trouble to fix.”
Artist: “But you still look jumpy and out of whack.”
Painting: “See what I’m like in black and white.”
Artist: “And now you’re lacking in warmth and colour surprise.”
Painting: “What about giving me a swipe of really orange sunset behind everything?”
Artist: “Okay. I’ll do it.”
Painting: “I love it when you are so positive and just sock it to me.”
You can see by this sample that it’s largely a matter of letting the painting tell you what it needs. While it’s all about surrendering to the work itself, it’s also the quality of the dialogue in front of it. Well-chosen words sop up the follies of defeat and error. As the lady said, “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say.” Sometimes it’s a loud and raucous shout. Sometimes it’s a barely-audible whisper.
PS: “What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.” (Meister Johann Eckhart)
Esoterica: A verbal studio is more likely to be an active studio. I’ve noticed the better paintings, nearing the finish line, can receive an enthusiastically blurted “yes!” For the most part this unexpected outburst happens when the design is crisp, there’s some sort of drama, and abstract elements give the work more interest than the thing it’s meant to depict. “Please, please, take pity on me and desert me now,” says the painting. “Where’s another blank canvas?” asks the artist.
A fascinating journey
by Noel Ashton, Cape Town, South Africa
I don’t have discussions with my work. This probably has something to do with the continuous background music which sets up creative ambiance. I do find it incredibly important not to discuss the work in progress or concept before I am done — to discuss it seems to diminish the creative energy/force so crucial to the success of a piece. At present I am just over half way through a creative journey, 52 Artworks — A Year in Nature, where I am posting a new artwork each week for a year and blogging about it, with art/environmental thoughts around each piece. I’m finding this a fascinating journey and am amazed at the learning process along the way.
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Silence before diving in
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
Audible conversations or silent thoughts… I don’t think it really matters. What matters is taking time to think, to listen, to really consider what we, as artists, want to say in each painting. Too many times we find ourselves working away, without really stepping back and simply contemplating, without asking, ‘What am I doing and why am I doing it?’ We rush through the process without letting the painting lead us in our decisions. I, myself, find this to be particularly true when I’m outside. I’m in such a hurry to capture the light that I neglect to take those critical steps. I have found with plein air work, that it really pays to take at least 3 or 4 minutes and sit in silence, just observing my subject before diving in. During that time different senses besides my sense of sight will often be affected by the scene before me… a particular sound, smell or even something like the temperature of the air will often come into focus and that in turn will affect the work’s direction.
Ask your painting
by Bill Skuce, Sooke, BC, Canada
Many times during James Pinto’s month-long painting workshop the summer of 1980 in San Miguel de Allende,did we hear him say emphatically, “Talk to your painting… ask it what it needs!” This was a totally new concept to me back then. Many times since, while standing at my easel, I have heard my mind echoing Pinto, in his endearing Czechoslovakian accent, virtually shouting in the midst of a large class, “Ask your painting, ‘What the hell do you need?’ Then listen to what it tells you!” I received much encouragement from Pinto, who was then in his 70’s, but these words were the most memorable, and perhaps the most useful.
Listening to the painting
by Bonnie Mandoe, Las Cruces, NM, USA
Of course we dialogue with our work! A painting is conversation we have with ourselves. It’s one part of me talking with another part. The original idea or impulse to create the work was the seed. Subsequent responses are what move the conversation along (grow it). A relationship is developing. Like all meaningful relationships, it has its own life course. It evolves as a result of the conversation.
Painting isn’t “just like life,” it is life.
What’s better about a painting is that you can give it birth without a social security number, leave it alone without charges of neglect, and kill it without a prison sentence.
This is not, however, to say that conscience isn’t involved. It must be. As the painting develops a life and begins to speak more, demand more, and offer more, the listening aspect of our dialogue becomes increasingly crucial. Because, at a certain moment, the painting will shout, or whisper, “Leave me alone,” and we must hear, and agree, and give up our active role in the conversation and let the painting speak for itself. Individuation at its finest!
The keys to originality
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA
I have issues with contemplating my own art with anyone but myself during its process of execution. It’s OK for me to have self-doubts but however creative and positive another’s feedback, it interferes with my narcissism. Art, to me, is not a democratic process unless it is a commissioned piece requiring another’s fulfillment. To me, an artwork is like a poem, a personal experience, therefore extremely subjective. And because of the latter, one’s contemplation of one’s own will not notice the blind spot. And it is the blind spot that makes the art original.
Committee contemplation produces committee results. It is like a furnishings designer’s magazine producing a generic condition. There’s always something sterile about it without the originality of personal quirky imperfections.
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Avoiding Mickey Mouse
by Jenny Groat, Lagunitas, CA, USA
Yes! I talk to “myself and my paintings” all the time. And they do talk back. My most frequently noticed danger is one in which I turn away in disgust, saying, “Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse… etc., etc.” This means I’ve made a move or two that has made everything sticky sweet, often pastels, like a Disney fantasy. This has to be destroyed ruthlessly! The painting seems really relieved when I blast it free! This often means “ruining” my favorite (so far) part of the work. But the last painting I did just took over the conversation. It seemed to grab the brush and just went for it. When I finished it was luscious. I was totally bewildered, and said out loud… “Hey, what just happened here?” Totally bewildered. I don’t know whether this will happen again, but it happened this time, and it claimed the name, Calypso.
Talking to the animals
by Kim Werfel, Pittsboro, NC, USA
As I paint lots of pet portraits, wildlife and animals in general, I talk to them often while I’m painting. Until I read this article… I wouldn’t have admitted that! Sometimes I’m asked to paint a pet that has just passed, and I never got the chance to meet. I ask lots of questions about their personality, favorite treats, toys, personality quirks. This somehow helps me with decisions of color intensity, mood, backgrounds, etc. I’ll speak to the work in progress saying, “Winnie, are you here yet? Where are you? And somewhere during the painting process I swear I’ll know when I’ve caught the animal’s spirit. It’s like they’re waiting to be brought back to their owner… it’s what I try to do.
Maybe I’m already in the ranks of the artistically insane, but I’m happy.
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Letters for the New Year
by Linda Kathleen Simons, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I’m sitting in the Denver Airport and I wanted to send you a short note to thank you for your letter of incredible insights, encouragement and valuable advice throughout this year. Your letter does make a difference in our lives and I thought I needed to tell you – you have picked me up when I was discouraged, helped me to work through a particularly difficult piece and made me realize that “the fire that burns within” (completely unrelated to last night’s chili) is hard work, lonely at times and the most wonderful pursuit I could ever imagine. I have been taking a course at Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, B. C., in their Continuing Studies Program. Your Letter is so important to me that I often read it in Class when it pertains to the subject matter we are studying. Thank you for caring for all of us and making a difference in our lives. I wish you and your Dear Ones a very Happy New Year and a 2012 full of Blessings, good health and great art.
(RG note) Thanks, Linda. And thanks to everyone who wrote with similar appreciation and wishes for the New Year. My intuition tells me something great is about to happen.
Dialogue, not monologue
by Ken Paul, Eugene, OR, USA
I’ve been an artist who has mumbled to himself for many years while wrestling with a new opus. I was quite self-conscious about this initially, but it turned into a regular feature of my process. It was only in later years that I more fully appreciated what this was really all about. Most denizens of Western culture probably think of art-making as a monologue — a one-way flow of creative energy from the artist in an inspired moment. Once begun, the work is imagined to take form by way of the maker’s talent, insight, imagination, skill, inspiration — even “genius” in special cases. Such a view probably stems mostly from looking at finished works without the benefit of having much first-hand experience of its particular process. When I was teaching in a college studio arts program, one of our graduate students remarked that she experienced creativity as a dialogue rather than a monologue. This nailed it for me: the agency which I was really talking to — rather than just “me” — was the “muse” — the “other” — the embodiment of that aspect of the work which seems to have a life of its own. I fully agree that there’s an element of surrender involved here. Many readers will remember the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his “dummy” Charlie McCarthy. Daughter Candice Bergen tells of entering his room unannounced, to find him talking to Charlie. She listened quietly for a couple of minutes before Edgar noticed her presence. He said, “Oh, you caught us! I actually talk with Charlie in private all the time — he is one of the wisest people I ever met!”
Pimping the gender
by Richard F Barber, Watford, Hertfordshire, UK
Just recently I read a blog about the suffering of the female artist. The blog seemed to be transfixed on female suffering in art. As an artist I’m well aware of the sufferings that some artists have gone through by being persecuted by various governments around the world for their art, be it visual or the written word.
In the World of art we are lead to believe that each artist is equal as regards race, creed and gender. But when you look deeper into this, it’s untrue. For some years now there has been a firm wedge driven into that belief — a wedge that has gone unnoticed by the artist. It has been driven home by the very people that we accept as friends of the artist, people that we deal with for our livelihood! — organizers and galleries — the wedge being sexism.
In the modern world that we live in, there has been an ongoing fight to create equality for both men and women. Irrespective of creed or race, people around the world are dying in the fight to reach this goal. Some are the young men and women in uniform who are equipped with weapons and tools to fight this battle against repression; others are just the ordinary men and women on the street, but all these people have one aim: to free the world of injustice, seeking equality and freedom.
In art we are lead to believe that all are equal by merit of what we produce. So why is there a need for galleries and organizers to blatantly pimp the gender of the artist by putting on exhibitions and shows for a single sex? If we are equal, then does it matter if you are male, female or transsexual? Why the need for sexism?
Surely the artist is to be judged by the merit of his or her work, not gender. Apart from the artist’s name on the work of art and seeing the artist create the said piece, you would not know the artist’s gender, as it has been proved by women that have worked using a man’s name to hide their identity.
Try starting an exhibition with “Men’s Art,” a Juried Exhibition for Men only, juried by men. Then see the outcry by women calling it sexist. It could never happen.
As an artist I appreciate both male or females artworks. I’m also a great lover of the female in art. Having said that I also believe in a level playing field for both male and female. So should we allow organizers and galleries to use sexual gender as a showcase for art? Have artists lost their self-respect as well as their conscience?
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Enjoy the past comments below for Talk to me…
acrylic painting, 30 x 42 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 Shirley Erskine of Oakville, ON, Canada, who wrote, “And here, after all the years of self-conversation, I thought that I was really just ‘losing it’! The dialogue was not as one-sided as I had led myself to believe. Thank you for clearing that up for me. Happy New Year!”