Seasoned painters may think I’m reinventing the wheel here, but this idea is one that many — even many abstractionists — need to know about: The normal and obvious process is to mix a colour to match the local colour of the subject matter and then apply it in its proper place in the painting. For a change, try this: Mix a colour — any colour — then look around and try to find a place to put it. For many artists this is awkward, reverse thinking. I’m here to tell you — it’s dynamite.
There’s another spin to the process: You have your brush loaded with that arbitrary colour, and you’re looking around for somewhere to put it. Say this: “Form up.” You’re telling yourself to find and shape one of the painting’s forms that are in need of further resolution. Of course, some artists actively avoid forms. That’s okay, too. Like you do when you go to the shoe store — you’re “trying on.” It’s the old story of commit and correct. Your imagination can only tell you so much about what will happen when you put a certain colour in a certain place. To truly see how things will work out — you have to commit.
There’s yet another spin to the process: You don’t have to put your stroke of colour in an exact place. You might just try putting it “nearby.” You do this somewhat automatically by simply standing back a bit, half closing your eyes, and seeing — that’s it — seeing — approximately where that colour is needed. It’s Charles Reid’s idea of letting the painting tell you what it needs. This “nearby” idea may not always make sense — it may appear unnatural, even sloppy. But it’s an exercise that can give energy and vitality to the work.
The real beauty of using these sister processes is that your work of art develops holistically. By going here and there with a serendipitous brush, elements overall gradually come into focus. Like a ship emerging from a fog, your creation builds itself and is more likely to have a look of unity.
PS: “Painting calls for skill of hand in order to discover things not seen, that hide themselves under the shadow of natural objects, and to fix them with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.” (Leonardo da Vinci) “Painting means gaining control without impeding the creative process.” (Don Farrell)
Esoterica: Paintings are effective when they contain form and formlessness, gradations and flats, recessions and protrusions, losts and founds, opacities and transparencies, fecundity and paucity, and leave the viewer to put in some of the flourishes. “I shut my eyes in order to see.” (Paul Gauguin)
This letter was originally published as “The serendipitous brush” on August 9, 2002.
The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.
“In painting one must search rather for suggestion than for description, as is done in music.” (Paul Gauguin)
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