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.
This letter was originally published as “Talk to me” on December 27, 2011.
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“To gaze is to think.” (Salvador Dali)
My art represents an artistic journey that has been on-going for more than thirty-five years with help and guidance from many wonderful artists. Now, with years of plein-air painting experience, study and solo exhibitions, I believe that my current work has reached its highest level, reflecting the depth of my absorption in the wonder and beauty of the world around me. I have learned that, as an artist, I will never stop looking for better ways to express my feelings in art and that struggling to more fully understand myself is integral to my painting; a philosophy that was part of every workshop I taught. Still is.