Almost everyone who reads my letters will have had this experience: You’re at work in the studio and a non-art friend drops by. Carrying a conversation with half your brain, you continue painting with the other half.
Yesterday it was Jim. He and I share a love of vintage Bentleys. His is 1936, mine’s 1938. After some carburetor talk, Jim happened to notice I was pulling the painting out of my head. “What is it you’re trying to do there?” he asked.
I consider all art questions valid, even from a guy who smells of gasoline. “I’m trying to make a full painting,” I said. When Jim left, a Scotch later, I got to thinking what I was trying to tell him:
The painting needs a foreground, middle ground and background.
It needs a strong black, white and grayscale design.
It needs gradations, large and small and interlocking patterns.
It needs attention to counterpoint and negative areas.
It needs a sense of mystery, fantasy, illusion or wonder.
It needs fresh slashes, swipes and textures.
It needs not to be overworked, laboured or boring.
It needs colour sophistication — perhaps light and shade.
It needs at least some elements to be formed up properly.
It needs one area to determine what another area will be.
It needs to reflect the joy or meaning of an occasion, whether in the present or past.
It’s a given that my priorities may not be your priorities. But these are the sort of things we need to think about when we are trying to make art. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. One of my much-celebrated weaknesses is that I try to analyze everything. “The unexamined painting is not worth painting.” Funnily, one can discuss carburetion while ticking off a list.
PS: “The composition is the organized sum of the interior functions of every part of the work.” (Wassily Kandinsky)
Esoterica: To make a full painting we need to prioritize and execute those nuances and stylistic tendencies that make our work unique. Some of these priorities come automatically and intuitively, others require a self-made and self-managed checklist tattooed deeply into our creative core. In the words of the late Canadian portraitist Myfanwy Pavelic: “I’d rather it took over me than I took over it.”
This letter was originally published as “The full painting” on December 18, 2009.
“The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble…” (Wassily Kandinsky)