Desultory painting

15

Dear Artist,

My friend Jack Hambleton and I were in the town of Sao Bras de Alportel in southern Portugal. Stepping out onto the spacious flat roof of our three-story hotel one evening, we saw potential. Before sun-up the next day we were back out there, drinking our coffee and seriously rethinking the variety below. Small winding streets led away in all directions. Red-tiled roofs rubbed shoulders and formed cubist patterns with the white walls, laundry lines, and geranium-filled window boxes. Decorative chimneys studded the skyline. Jack said, “There are a million views in the tiny city.”

White Boats oil on board 12 x 30 inches by Jack Hambleton (1916 -1988)

White Boats
oil on board
12 x 30 inches
by Jack Hambleton (1916 -1988)

We set up in the middle of the roof, near the potential shade of a water cistern. Our method was to walk to the parapet and assemble a view in our heads, then come back to the easel and begin. Going from one view to another, only a short time was required to lay in each composition. We set down our half-baked paintings — his watercolours and my acrylics — in a growing circle around us. By noon we both had a half dozen starts. The second phase was to walk to the parapet with a “chosen” painting in hand. Elements and points of interest not noticed before popped into view and motifs from other works begged to be included. Needless to say, midday light introduced different shadows and different challenges. Returning again to the easel brought a further degree of finish. Some works took four or five parapet-trips before signature. Less favoured ones were unceremoniously abandoned. By Scotch-time we each had several modest crackerjackers.

Paros, Greece watercolour on paper 16 x 12 inches by Jack Hambleton

Paros, Greece
watercolour on paper
16 x 12 inches
by Jack Hambleton

Later, an inconvenienced but mildly amused hotelier served us a calamari and asparagus dinner right there on the roof. We revelled and anecdoted until we could no longer see. The Oxford Dictionary defines “desultory” as “skipping from one subject to another, disconnected, unmethodical.” It may be an unmethodical method, but it’s a useful one. Here’s why: Our minds are capable of far more multi-tasking and multi-tracking than we think. The critical sense that goes with the processes of art-making moves forward on both prior experience and intuition. Quick looks and automatic decisions, devoid of long-term contemplation and recrimination, often produce decent results. Going from one project to another heightens the faculty. Over time, an artist builds a repertoire of creative moves, motifs and techniques — there to be released or withheld as the artist sees fit. Desultory it may be, but it’s a valuable ploy in an artist’s ongoing obligation to play.

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “You have no obligation under the sun other than to discover your real needs, to fulfill them, and to rejoice in doing so.” (Francois Rabelais)

The Shambles, York watercolour on paper 15 x 11 inches by Jack Hambleton

The Shambles, York
watercolour on paper
11 x 15 inches
by Jack Hambleton

Esoterica: Life is a precarious balance between letting go and taking control. When we are on the very roof of our art, we see that our own reality is within reach. Accepting the gift may take the accumulated wisdom of some trodden miles, but it also opens the welcome windows of joy.

This letter was originally published as “Desultory painting” on May 31, 2011.

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“What we play is life.” (Louis Armstrong)


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15 Comments

  1. What a thrilling surprise to see Jack’s “White Boats” . . . I have the original in my studio! Thank you for sharing these amazing stories & letters. Creatively, Jan Rankin

  2. One of the best articles yet!!!!
    Thanks very much!
    “Dulsatory”. Great word. It gives credence to how those of us with extreme right-brains move through life.

  3. Wow as a watercolorist who gets caught up in ridiculous detail at times, it is a joy to see the Hambleton works. In the one from Greece the precision of the blue sky and the white architecture work perfectly with splashes of green foliage at the bottom. I started a piece and was very unhappy at second try with the central theme, coming back a few days later I threw in from memory the surrounding shadows and foliage, I like it much better and it gives me a new approach to a final finished piece.

  4. Seems like a way of life sometimes, and the reason why snail darters are listed as endangered species, but bouncing back and forth between reality and memory is a good measure of creativity, and for me, a path to places neither here nor there.

  5. I’m sitting here on a rainy day during the shutdown. My chore today is to write, or rather draw, three girls names for book covers for a friend. Since I don’t know how to spell the third name and I only have her work contacts numbers, I’m doing many more thumbnails and ink and paint trials than normal. If I were charging by the hour, I’d be done by now with some mundane work. Reading this post made me realize the parallel approach to painting images. My brother used to say, “All comes to pass in time unfettered.” Which is what this isolation has provided.

  6. I always feel so ‘ordinary’ when I read of your glorious exploits! The lives people/artists lead are so extraordinarily different from one another, and ‘regular’ people are reluctant to share ‘regular’ experiences as an artist. It is intimidating.

  7. Thank you Sara (Robert and Jack )

    What an enchanting story, with such wise guidance. It is such fun that you included Jack’s work, seeing his wonderful style is delightful. Brings even more life to the scene of he and Robert on the roof.
    I always love a brilliant story with pictures.

    Light and bright thoughts to all…

  8. Again flabbergasted by the constant display of excellence….when we , …all us as ordinary humans….. will display it from time to time, but you ( my esteem friends in thought and beliefs ..Robert & Sara) seems to display it, all of the time in the selection of your titles, your subject, your mood, your narrative, your picture and your wisdom as displayed in your website/The Painters’ Keys. Next to reading the Smithsonian Magazine, there are the few things I miss reading. And your letters, never do they appear without me learning something new, inspiring , relaxing , or something profound. Without question, the lens of your writing, paintings and the use of quotes gave me a new lens on viewing this world. Also I agree that “Desultory” is totally different from doing something randomly and unfocused. This is being curious with a purpose to recapture in your mind for next time.

  9. I wonder if anyone else Googled desultory. Before reading, I did, and found “lacking plan, purpose, and enthusiasm”, which could describe some of my sheltered-in-place days, but certainly didn’t fit Robert’s beautiful narrated day.  I went for the etymology source and found his idea, but moreover enjoyed finding the Latin verb desultor, referring to “a rider in the circus who jumps from one horse to another while they are in gallop”.  I’ve pleasantly come to think of this unmethodical approach serving his well-put “artist’s ongoing obligation to play” as leaps of faith, akin to flitting about, free-flying.  It was a good push.  Thank you.

  10. Diana Childs on

    Well, haha; I suppose I’m a very desultory artist indeed! I do flit about…sometimes with a good result.
    What a wonderful visual this article gives me! I especially liked Dr. Errol D. Alexander’s letter.; as I very much agreed with him.
    Thank you,

  11. desultory
    adjective
    lacking a plan, purpose, or enthusiasm.

    or … Marco heading back to the workshop.

    Popular culture suggested that faced with a common, global existential threat, differing factions would band together. Not so, apparently. It turns out instead that we raised protective barriers, developed umpteen theoretical score-cards to convince ourselves of our superiority, refused to collaborate on solutions, and proceeded to focus on leveraging the threat to our relative competitive advantage. Kinda depressing …

    That’s one perspective. I admit to a tendency to insist on a plan before committing forward, and refuse the poet’s plea: “le vent se lève; il faut tenter de vivre.” I concur … when we hit rock bottom. But … now? We are still a-ways from that. Everything being put in motion feels a doomed attempt to return to old habitual ways. No real change … yet. So … I wait for the wind to quit swirling before engaging.

    “Yet I know my mind is capable of far more multi-tasking and multi-tracking than I think. The critical sense that goes with the processes of art-making moves forward on both prior experience and intuition. Quick looks and automatic decisions, devoid of long-term contemplation and recrimination, often produce decent results. Going from one project to another heightens the faculty. Over time, an artist builds a repertoire of creative moves, motifs and techniques — there to be released or withheld as the artist sees fit.

    Desultory it may be, but it’s a valuable ploy in an artist’s ongoing obligation to play”.

    We humans look through microscopes to define ourselves by observing constituent parts; or telescopes, to understand our larger context. Yet … no instrument exists that allows me to see myself, the observer … observing. So … what I must obey, regardless of my observations, is the creative urge, and trust it to be coordinating through all-that-is to paint what I cannot fathom.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/purple-series1-2285-1-wpcf_300x295.jpgPurple series #1
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