Supports. I’m not talking about the people who support you while you’re having fun with art. I’m talking about the stuff we work on — canvases, panels, cards, papers — generally referred to as “the support.”
Recently I asked Charles, my canvas stretcher, to make up 48 in the 11″ x 14″ size. Primed and ready to go, that enormous pile stood beside my easel and gradually diminished over a period of a couple of weeks. As I went about my daily business of painting I noticed a peculiar thing happening. When the pile was at full height I painted energetically and casually, taking chances, goofing around. I was not yet concerned with waste. But as the pile neared the bottom I found myself in a more “conservative” mode. I was running out, not only of canvases, but of “elan.” There was only one thing to do — order another 48.
Furthermore, paintings done from the top of the pile were better, in my opinion, than those done as I began to bottom out. I started to think of artists who have only one or two supports in their studios at any given time. I thought of those who go out and buy them one at a time. Better, I thought, to work on newsprint than to work on precious stock that you will soon run out of.
Having said that, there is no substitute for quality supports. They modify and enhance your work, improve your self-esteem, and give the professional’s edge. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day I first laid my brush on a rare little piece of 300 lb cold-press. It was in an unheated cabin where I was taking watercolor lessons. “Yesss,” I said. I was ten years old.
In those days my father worked in a paper plant. On Saturdays he worked half days and I used to walk out to meet him coming toward me from his bus stop. From a mile away he would wave to let me know that he was bringing with him off-cuts or samples from the factory. Saturday afternoons were like Christmas mornings. The materials he brought were mostly poor quality cardstocks — but they taught me my lessons. Later, I painted on anything I could get my hands on — bed-sheets, junkyard doors, a certain type of hard biscuit. Yep, biscuit — edible. The bugs loved ’em. An early, brilliant example of a biodegradable, fugitive support.
PS: “Ideally, one should have more material than one can possibly cope with.” (Frank Auerbach) “It is vain for painters to endeavor to invent without materials on which the mind may work.” (Sir Joshua Reynolds)
Esoterica: Your choice of support can be part of one of the most valuable art processes — the making of sets or series. You experiment within the confines of a size and format. Going from one to the other builds variety, invites development and unlocks the potential for creative surprise. “I think I play better tennis because the court is there.” (Robert Frost)
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Good art out of chaos
by Robin Christy Humelbaugh, Stayton, California, USA
Thank you for the validation supporting my collection of papers and canvases. I am not as orderly as you, working from a stack or on the same size or even on the same type of surface, but it is so comforting to know that when I go to paint, the supplies are there. I tell my students that all the time, to have plenty of materials and to have a place to use them immediately. Of course, I have yet to organize my space, doesn’t seem to be in my character, but some good art occasionally comes out of my chaos.
Paints on fungus
by Lorna Hannett
When I first discovered painting, but before I discovered canvas, I, too, painted on anything that would hold paint. (except biscuits!) I painted on wood, plant pots, cream cans, the odd piece of furniture, cardboard liners from shirts, feathers, antlers, ostrich eggs (still paint on those), leather pieces, ceramic plates. I even found some ‘artist’s fungus’ and painted on that! I didn’t know or care about ‘acid free’ or whether it would last 100 years. I just had to paint. Still do. Now I do paint on proper supports, flat surfaces and I do worry about it lasting a good long time. All that practice made me a better artist, but sometimes I miss the freedom I felt before, so every now and again, I ‘play’ by painting on something silly, like fungus!
by Carol Costa, Larchmont, NY, USA
Where do you get all your ideas from? I spend days just obsessing over one canvas, no less 48 of them!
(RG note) In the case of the 48 — I work in “zones.” These break down differently with every set, but for this last group I have been holding up “impasto” and “pattern” as high desirables. Subject matter is a bit secondary right now, but that too has been broken down into zones — mountains, skies, foliage in counterpoint and cad-red color surprise, etc. In a way this last series has been an exercise in scumbling. For me, as I’m sure it is for many others, it’s the chosen process that keeps artists awake and ongoing — and the ideas just seem to automatically flow.
Changing your mind
by Patty Harrison, Leatherhead, Surrey, UK
I just went to the Picasso museum in Paris, then read your letter about canvas and materials. Picasso painted on wooden boards for some stuff but the paint is cracking (nice effect; perhaps intentional?). As one could get up close to his paintings in this museum, you could see where he changed his mind on his paintings and painted over bits of previously painted areas. It was fun to see his changing mind on his canvases!
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, TX, USA
Your observation about supports is consistent with the ideas referred to in recent responses (specifically, the war issue) from readers — feelings of abundance enhance creativity (while the perception of a lack of abundance hinders it). In my case, the concern that life is too short and I discovered my passion late spurs me on. I currently have an abundance of half-finished sculptures and many ideas pushing out of my head, daring me to start them before I finish the other works. It is an exciting and lucky place to be.
(RG note) As a sister clickback to this page we have included updated artists’ comments on the war issue. It’s called Artists at war.
Free, loose and imaginative
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada
“Curiouser and curiouser” as Alice said, how often one of your letters parallels what’s going on in my painting. I found four 1-foot square canvases on 2-inch-deep stretchers at an art store, and have been having a ball ever since — free, loose, imaginative paintings. When I got to the third, I ordered six more. Now they’re almost gone, but the feeling never will — freedom to paint. For years and years I couldn’t afford proper supports, or paint, or brushes. Shed doors, boathouses, bedroom walls, men’s ties… but biscuits? And I’ll never forget the day I went out to buy REAL stretched canvases instead of canvas boards, after a particularly good sale. Wonderful!
by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA
For many years I taught at Santa Rosa Junior College in the art department; watercolor, oils, acrylics and drawing. Most of my students had little money. I gathered up old window shades, the pull down kind from rummage sales; the stuff is tough with a pattern on one side and can be cut to any size. If you did a good painting it could be glued to 1/8 in. Masonite. In my classes I expected homework each week in the afternoon of the morning class. I do not recommend waiting until the day before the next class. You will not remember what you learned unless you practice it soon. We had a critique in each class. I also reminded students that you learn from discussion.
Happy and encouraged
by Barbara Elizabeth Mercer, Toronto, Canada
At present I am working on 24″ x 24″ gallery canvas. A package of 5 is light and easy for me to handle. The series I am working on is “My Canadian Icons,” portraits of those who have influenced my life and are still alive to sit for me. I do a one hour sitting in oil pastel. My subjects do not have to sit again. This pleases them in their busy lives. From the portrait sketch I then work over in acrylic, with imagination and memory. These are the paintings I will exhibit at the Florence Biennale, Dec./03. I have a 10′ square wall allotted to me in Florence. I have a nice bundle of blank 24″ x 24″ waiting to be painted. This makes me happy and encouraged.
Roberta Rich “no talent” dept.
(RG note) Thanks to all who wrote to encourage “Roberta with no talent” whose plea was in the previous responses. Emails ranged from “Don’t be silly,” to “Roberta might consider going into politics.” There were some excellent letters. Below are some of them. Thanks for helping her.
by Kathleen Knight
You say you have a strong sense of composition and color, so of course you do have talents that many aspiring artists lack. You say your cut-outs are well-received, so you also have success that many aspiring artists might envy. What more do you want, I wonder. No one is born knowing how to draw and paint. Those skills come more easily to some than to others, but everyone must work hard and practice long to become truly competent. I suspect that either you were too easily discouraged in those classes, or that you really didn’t desire to learn the particular skills. Go with your strengths — collage, fabric, design — and practice the skills you need to express what you want to express. Forget those classes!
Take an “away” workshop
by Jaqueline Baldini, Niagara Falls, Canada
First find something that ‘speaks to you.’ If you are passionate or extremely interested in something, you will pursue it. Once you find your strongest interest, take an ‘away’ workshop in that subject, where you eat, sleep and breathe it. The osmosis in this type of workshop is unlike ‘classes’ where, in the learning stages, you try to resume your enthusiasm for a piece you started last week. The start and stop method in a class is a hard way to ‘start a passion’! The involvement in a workshop with like-minded people away from your everyday life will make for a huge first step for you in a focused direction.
She can do it
by B. J. Adams
When Roberta Rich wrote she has no talent, but has a decent sense of color and composition, I say that is a talent or at the very least the essence of her abilities. I think she means she can’t draw or paint realistically. I know artists who can draw well, realistically, but have to really work at color and composition to create what they call ‘art.’ Roberta can paint and build collages, abstractly and probably put a beautifully colored meal together with the right balance of textures.
Make lots of stencils
by Lori S. Lukasewich, Canada
I’ve been teaching the kind of beginner classes you mentioned and from time to time I come across students just like you. I always tell them the story of myself on leaving art school. I had no confidence at all in my skills as a realist artist and yet, I too, had a flair for design and composition. After some reflection on the art world at large, I realized that if you do anything long enough and with passion and integrity you will probably end up making art. So I began to make things that focused on color and pattern because I knew I could succeed at it. And I did for nearly 20 years. I suggest that you make a lot of those stencils you mention, they will lead you quite naturally to the next level.
Do it your way
by Bobbie Kilpatrick, Texas, USA
Roberta you are being very hard on yourself. First of all I prefer to use the word aptitude instead of talent. “Having talent” seems to give the idea that it is a God given creativity and requires no thought or work… it just flows from the artist. That is a myth because any successful endeavor requires application and practice. Everyone has an aptitude for something. Aptitude is the desire to do something. You already have that as well as a “sense of composition and color” so all that is left is an understanding of the medium or paint properties to be able to paint. As for drawing, “being far and away the worst” is probably your idea. It is discouraging to compare yourself to others. Art is one field that being and seeing differently is ideal. Drawing accurately is an understanding of the subject. Maybe your personal sense of drawing is not accuracy but a feeling or essence of the subject which is far more important. If you feel you lack imagination… being able to make things up… then let nature or subject be your inspiration. Just put color to canvas without thinking that someone will criticize it. In fact, don’t let anyone see it until you are ready. Just have fun with art and remember if you do it your way no one can say it is wrong.
Nobody has none
by Faith Puelston, Wetter, Germany
Doesn’t it all depend on what you mean by “talent”? Stop convincing yourself you have none. Nobody has none. Thoughts are things, after all. If you want to be an artist, you have to believe in yourself, first and foremost, and not be deterred by anything at all.
I have a friend who is probably talented in her own way, but does her best to hide the fact. She covers every canvas — whatever the subject — with lavish layers of bright blue paint (her favorite colour) then scratches out her desired subject in thin lines with a 2H pencil. She then mixes about 5 usually disharmonious colours in opulent quantities and sets about covering up the blue, which is a battle hard won. She gets a bit of her composition finished, then moves on to the next bit, until she has completed her plan of action, never going back to correct anything, and never standing back to look at what she’s done. She can’t even spell the word “perspective.” To my eyes, her pictures are terrible. But she’s happy with them and even sells one now and again.
by Catherine Jo Morgan, nr. Clarkesville, Georgia (in the woods)
Sometimes I meet people who don’t know what a “poormouth” is. It’s someone who’s always talking about how poor they are. Sad scarcity tales pour out of their mouth. One of my favorite quotes is from the abstract iron sculptor David Smith: “Art can’t be made by a poormouth.” He himself took care to have piles and piles of materials at hand. But there’s also a sense in which poormouthing prevents the artist from even getting the piles of materials. Being poor becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Feeling rich, grateful, flowing — what a wonderful state of being in which to make art.
Inspiration from artists
by Finola Prescott, St. Lucia, West Indies
I believe strongly that “the ethers” bring sympathetic energies together. Today’s letter and responses to the last letter came so comfortably together from such distances. Here in St. Lucia, West Indies — mentioned by Jaqueline Baldini, who I have never met–I constantly rely on the wild beauty around me to counterbalance the lack of suitable supports. Living in an island like St. Lucia you get the difficult side of underdevelopment to deal with as well as the beauty of wild places. So I read on, each new letter absorbing the gifts of inspiration contained within — “The Peace of Wild Things” captures my relationship with nature so well, it breathed a bit of confidence back into my spirit today. Then at the end, a question of talent, maybe Roberta has answered her own question and given me a point to start from at the same time.
Chateau de Borde-Rouge
watercolour & gouache
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