Over the past year I have had different people tell me that I have become somewhat spiritual. One person actually said that I’ve become warm and fuzzy! Well, warm and fuzzy I can understand – there’s no surprise there. But spiritual? That’s a different kettle of fish. Let’s take a look.
I think this whole spiritual thing arose because I have been thinking in terms of painting as enchantment. I cautioned against equating my sense of enchantment with the more available sense of enchantment, the la-di-da Ezio Pinza kind that one can access without effort (the kind that can be had by simply setting up a nice little dinner table outside, sipping great wine, and listening to Pinza sing Some Enchanted Evening as the sun goes down). That kind of Pinza enchantment may be great for kicking back and revitalizing happy hour, but the kind of enchantment that makes art both edgy and life-giving is the kind that rips us out of fru fru land and yet has us all a tremble as we watch two shadows come together. That kind of enchantment, following Jane Bennett, turns on a revitalization of wonder.
But there’s a catch. Before one can slip into these moods of fullness, plenitude, or liveliness, where we are then in a position to notice sensations, like color, previously ignored, one must find ways of escaping or exiting from our ordinary realms of perception and being – which begs the question: Why must we exit our everyday, ordinary realm? The answer is this: not only do our widely shared ordinary ways of thinking subvert access to the kind of enchantment I’m getting at, they are also celebrated as right ways of thinking at the very center of the good life we embrace (the institutional setting that we have inherited).
Let’s Take A Look
I think it may be useful to explain this kind of spiritualism (if you wish to call it that) by showing you some of my recent work at the same time that I describe my own strategies of escaping the ways of thinking that we all know and embrace. However, I will show you only details of paintings at first (you will be able to find each of the paintings from which the details were taken at the end of this blog) because I want to bring you into the sensual realm with me. The key, I believe, is to see just the sensual pieces of the subject. I will try to explain to you what is happening to me as I respond to those sensations and how I let go of my “ordinary” ways of thinking, being, and seeing that tend to block my passage to enchantment. There are four barriers, as it were, that I must think about getting past: 1) thinking that matter is inert; 2) not staying in the moment and seeing painting as a means to some external end or what is called instrumental rationality; 3) the urge to master nature instead of opening oneself to it; and 4) certain career path strategies that might slip into what is called a calculating rationality.
1. Letting go of the belief that matter is inert
I’ve arrived at my location. My easel is set up. I have two clamps on my palette and a clamp holding the canvas to the easel. It is cold but I wear no gloves. Everything must be absolutely solid; I may have to attack the canvas and I want nothing to move. My fingers must be absolutely sensitive to the handle of my brush. My palette is freshly loaded and absolutely clean. I am anxious. It’s like walking a tightrope, I suppose. There are lots of ways of slipping and falling and, therefore, lots of “absolutes.” I will exit and soar and breathe, see, and be in wonder, or when I throw the switch, nothing will happen. I won’t get off the ground. I won’t exit from my everyday mechanistic, desiccated world where I am separate from everything, where I have “work” to do and ladders to climb, and then I will pack all my gear back into the car, drive home disappointed and look forward to my stupid drink at the end of the day – okay, late-afternoon – where I – oh dear me – yes – unwind. Might as well shoot myself.
I try to relax and to focus. I need to escape and as Robert Henri has pointed out, “Nature doesn’t reveal herself to the negligent.” Nature loves to play, to hide, to tease, to play tricks, to seduce, to capture and take you away. But I must also learn to surrender totally for any of this to happen. I look over there. Ugh! Just silence. So I just start in and begin to mix a color. I feel stiff. Nothing is happening. Everything is dead. I’m hoping that nature will begin the conversation. Without using words, I ask, “Are you there?”
My iPod is now pouring, almost at maximum volume my special “take me away” music – and besides, the music encapsulates me – shelters me from the people who will be watching and hovering about. Interference from them breaks the spell. I’m ready.
In my ordinary realm, I must pay the bills to survive. I’m trapped in the realm of necessity like everyone else. But notice how I’m a different person in that everyday realm than in the realm of enchantment. The imperative to pay the bills introduces a flatness to the way in which I perceive the world.
For example, as much as I love the aesthetic of the house we just built, part of me was thinking resale value throughout the entire time that it was being built. And equally as empty, the glass, steel, cement, and wood used to build the house was just so much inert matter, piled up, waiting to be used.
But now as I hope to enter an entirely different realm – one that is magical and mysterious in ways – I must confront those prior feelings where nature is dead stuff or a simple resource to one where that same “dead stuff” may provide me with a meaningful sensual experience. Now I’m deeply yearning for an affective attachment with glass, steel, cement, and wood. And with some patience and resolve, as I begin to mix paint with an attitude of self-surrendering, I have feelings not unlike the feelings one has as when a drug noticeably starts kicking in. It’s an impulse of color I feel within. Matter has once again become affective. Where do you want to go? – I respond silently.
2. Letting go of an instrumental rationality
A deep yellow vibrates at me. It moves, dances, and seduces me. With a caressing stroke, I try and mix the color back, and as deftly as I possibly can, I drag and turn and push my brush around, following nature’s lead. I want to vibrate too. My own trillion molecules and that of those yellow vibrating photons seem to merge. With a deliberate swirly stroke of an olive greenish color, I respond to an olive greenish prompt. I’m being drawn in. I feel my brush being pulled up, delicately and off. I am welcomed. We are one, dancing. A silly thought passes through my brain: who needs a Porsche?
An intensely entrepreneurial friend has pressured me to embark on a failsafe project (we have replaced the term bourgeoisie with the euphemistic term entrepreneur; it sounds so much more – well – superior): we would organize weddings on Lake Como. But I don’t care about weddings, I protested. Nobody does. But think of the money you could make. Great. I make money and die in the process.
Let me see if I’ve got this: I do things for an external reward and the doing part of the activity means nothing to me. Isn’t that the definition of meaningless? Ah, but the meaningless activity, the instrument, gets me the reward and with the reward I can buy things like, say, a Porsche.
Instrumental rationality, with painters, is like some furtive stalker. Nearly everyone is compelled to paint for an agent of one kind or another. Therefore, a painter is under pressure – and I mean right during the process of painting itself – to think about results, or what will please the agent. The act of painting then becomes like the act of eating a sandwich. Each beginning is a kind of starting gate where one chews through the process until one reaches the end – all in one go. If I were to approach painting like that it would be impossible to sink into and get lost within pulsating moments because I would be riveted to that future moment called finished. If nature is to speak with me, I must never look for results, or know where the painting is going, or whether I will continue with it after the spell is broken, when I am finished (my emphasis). I have to push all those ordinary modes of making – a cake, a car, a house – and all the respective agents out of my head and escape from the sense that what I am doing is production. “Begin everything, finish nothing,” Sargent reminded us. I am there, with brush in hand, only for the purpose of savoring magical moments. Did you see that? A whisper of purple twirling. Yes! I’m alive. Possess me, then. I’m with you. Carry me away. You see, for me the payoff isn’t the pat on the back, the sale, or the freaking prize; it’s the pleasure in the moment of creation, where I’m fully whole and vibrating with what I see. If I weren’t getting these little surges of pleasure as I painted, I wouldn’t be painting.
3. Letting go of the need to master nature
It’s not surprising that they call the financiers on Wall St. “masters of the universe.” Making tons of money mastering stuff is where the action is, I believe. They use algorithms you know. Very bright people. But the mentality that is about mastering is the mentality that shuts down my oneness with the subject that I so enjoy, need, and feed off of. Suppose I were to say to myself: I’m bright too and capable, just like those mastering types. Okay then, let’s master this thing: I am not particularly interested in the color of the lake I see today – rather drab; I want the color “to pop” (a common motivation it seems) so I add in some white with a perky blue. Well, if I move in that direction, I might just as well paint from a photo or out of my head because I would then be separate from the subject anyway. Either way, the subject is objectified. Goodbye oneness, seduction, goodbye getting carried across the universe, and goodbye being able to see beyond the ordinary. (No wonder the color that I saw bored me.)
Look, one doesn’t have to be one with nature to be a painter but I do. I often push colors or if there are 3 or 4 colors swirling about, I may choose just the one that I seem to be tasting more. But when I manipulate nature in some way in the service of an idea, my ability to see deeply into things simply dies away because my feelings have died away. I’m totally in my head. Moreover, if I spend 10 seconds mastering the results and downplaying what I see, it’s ten seconds not really seeing. I must let go of mastering nature as an approach. Absolutely. One lifetime is not enough time to go very deeply anyway. As many artists have said at the very end of their lives, Degas being one of them, “Damn, and just when I was starting to get it!”
4. Letting go of a calculating rationality
Remember Hillary? Sigh. She was a calculator. And what was the line on her? She was inauthentic. We all know the feeling when we are in the ordinary realm, networking, maneuvering. Air kissing. The perpetual frozen smile. On the make constantly. We are not ourselves. Look at Damien Hirst. The cow’s head covered with maggots. Was that inspiration or calculation? Now he is the highest paid “artist” in the world. No wonder Matisse and so many other artists have been so hostile to the practice of calculating out strategies to succeed.
If and when I’m calculating out my super career path, here’s the big problem: I’m never the person who is able to get drunk on pink and blue photons dancing before me. I would be too busy thinking about what particular painting direction will advance my career. It took me years to even begin to feel a twinge of color. Now I use all my energy to slip into that realm where I can see a twinkling and seductive lime green. I crave for it to propel me. I want it to curse through me. I’m a color junkie. Or maybe I’m a color tripper? Who knows? If I become a hoop jumper, a contest competitor, a super-duper award winner and resume builder, great. I will move step-by-step up the freaking ladder; but again, I let go of all that for the simple reason that seeing more deeply – which is to say becoming a better painter, is not something that is or can be calculable. There is a greater imperative: I need to believe in myself where I am now. I’m too obsessed at the moment with being unnerved by that orange that seemingly keeps twinkling at me.
I don’t know if any of you still think I’m spiritual. I hope I’ve made it clear that whatever my “ism” is, it is not the kind that sits off to the side of or is disengaged from the success treadmill, or something that I can access at will or with ease. When and if enchantment happens it is because I have developed a bit of a strategy to access it and, apart from the music, it turns on consciously confronting and then letting go of those ordinary ways of being I have inherited. It requires, I’ve learned, a sense of anxiety. Not only am I unsure that if I access enchantment I won’t fall off my little tightrope, I know I must be a different person during those few precious moments when I am painting, that is, a somewhat different person than the person I am when I’m navigating the choppy seas of basic survival. I have a foot in each realm. This can be joyous to be sure, but it is also tormenting.
Bennett acknowledges this tension. She notes also that moving out of an atomized and predictable routine and into a realm where we are enamored with existence and able to feel moments of pure presence, creates within us a sense of being charmed but also a sense of being disturbed. The feeling of wonder is never far from the feeling of unease. This kind of spiritualism, if that is the correct word, for me at least, turns on a scraping off, a starting over, a letting go of what I already know, what I already can do well (especially as a painter); it is a kind tearing away, an uprooting, a dislocation, a resisting, a disobeying, a being bad! Eugene Bodin, Monet’s teacher, once said that when he painted the clouds it was “such a joy and such a torment.” Manet also used those exact same words to describe his realm of freedom. Funny, huh?
Let me end with a brief description of Cèzanne to re-enforce these points. He deplored competitions and awards. Many who knew him said that his only friends were trees and, therefore, would feel compelled to buy property when an entrepreneur saw in the respective trees only a resource and was prepared to chop them down (Renoir did this too). He constantly talked about sensations (as did Monet and Pissarro), vibrating and germinating with nature, and he regularly conversed with the nature that he painted. He declared again and again, that he would never allow entrepreneurs or to use his language, the bourgeoisie, to get “their hooks” into him. In fact, so hostile was he to those who lived exclusively in the realm of what I have been calling, following Bennett, “ordinary perception,” that he never simply used the term “bourgeoisie” by itself. He would always say instead, “the dirty bourgeoisie.” And why was there that burning hostility? It might be because he was obsessed with “realizing” (his word) who he was most. In other words, painting for him was, at its most fundamental, an activity of becoming. And so he would say, “With each canvas, I’m never the same man but I’m always Cèzanne.” “With each stroke I risk my life.”
Definitely a serious guy. And, I don’t know, rather spiritually engaged, don’t you think?
 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, (Princeton University Press, 2001). It is Bennett’s concept of enchantment that I have been working with and it isn’t a stand-alone idea; it is part of a pairing with the concept of disenchantment, which is a critique of modernity advanced by sociologist Max Weber. When I read Bennett I was stunned by her use of language and by the fact that her articulation of what she calls “sites of enchantment” bore an uncanny resemblance to what many great painters and writers have been pointing to as the realm we painters need to enter if we are to have half a chance at making art. Hence my desire to identify the activity of painting, when properly understood, as enchantment. All the italicized words in this blog unless otherwise noted are taken from Bennett.
 I’m referring to the ways in which we make and distribute our work in the larger art industry without thinking much about it. For example, if a private dealer wished to exhibit Monet’s work, he would have bought the work outright. Today, we beseech gallery owners to allow us to provide them with a free inventory so that they may sell our work on consignment. The difference is significant, but it is an inherited way of selling our work that we don’t think twice about and, worse, consider the practice to be just fine.
 As Monet once stated, “What people do not understand about my work is that it is a total self-surrender.”
 “If he’s sincere, if he’s entirely taken up with what he’s researching, he can’t do painting that flatters art lovers. If he’s concerned with success, he works with just the one idea: pleasing people and selling. He loses the support of his own conscience and is dependent on how others are feeling he neglects his gifts and eventually loses them.” Chatting With Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, Tate Publishing, p. 56.
 “….where this contact either fosters and/or itself constitutes a spiritually significant fulfillment or wholeness.” Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989) p. 425
For those of you who are still wringing your hands over the crazy outcome of the 2016 electoral contests, I thought I would select ten excellent candidates from the world of art that could finally set things straight. Below are the candidates with strength and weakness listed for you. Just be sure to squint, vote, and start over as often as you like.
Strength: He is big on the environment and has a proven record of being able to get up early. He is also a committed atheist, hates collectors, and stupid people. New York, California would be in the bag.
Weakness: He is obsessed with “surrendering,” “rendering his feelings,” and destroys much of what he creates.
Strength: He is very good at provoking the bourgeoisie.
Weakness: He comes from money and is big on sincerity. Not good in the year of outsiders and con men.
Vincent Van Gogh
Strength: He wants “to show what is in the heart of the lowest of the low.” He would have great appeal to the working class.
Weakness: He’s not great on gun control.
Strength: He has unsurpassed ability to suck up to and then maneuver past the rich and powerful types.
Weakness: He is absolutely shitty in his chosen profession.
Strength: He has the ability to speak with mountains, apples, and coffee cups. This could help him in West Virginia.
Weakness: He has an intense phobia about being touched. He wouldn’t be good at the rope line.
Strength: Reads books, is a card-carrying anarchist, atheist, and is hostile to all centers of power.
Weakness: He is a flip-flopper in his chosen profession.
Strength: He is able to play jokes on the ruling class that they never get.
Weakness: He bores easily and thinks shocking people is a big deal. He’d be weak in the fly-over states.
Strength: She is clearly superior to most men in her chosen profession. She lives above the glass ceiling.
Weakness: She has a serious longevity problem.
Strength: He has an unrivaled capacity to stretch time.
Weakness: He is a nut case fascist.
Strength: She can’t draw a lick but somehow became a Royal Academician of the Royal Academy of Arts. Her talent at defrauding people will make her a favorite with Wall St.
Weakness: She has a habit of confessing everything.
None of the Above
It is always appropriate to have “None of the Above” as an option in every election. Should “None of the Above” win a plurality or more, our Electors have agreed to install Rex the Wonder Dog as president. After all, he has been faithfully waiting for decades and he believes, at any rate, that this is his turn.
Based upon everything that I was taught, and which I have learned on my own, points to a basic truth: to be human is to be able to create yourself and to be able to create yourself is to be able to create your life. Now, unfortunately and particularly due to institutional pressures, very few people ever have the opportunity to do that. Yes, there is more opportunity to make a ton of money, but I’m talking about having the opportunity to be free to create the person you become.
It all begins with a deep desire to be able to respond to things that truly move you. So when I hear someone say, when looking at a painting, “I wish I could do that,” I think to myself, “She absolutely can.” All she needs is a teacher to show her how to get that desire out and express it on a canvas in a way that makes the desire come alive.
Okay, I have a story for you that makes the same point, but before I tell you the story take a look at the painting and a detail of the painting below:
The painting, of course, is by Van Gogh. It is a simple study. Notice how free his brushstrokes are. He is past the flower, just enjoying who he is, expressing who he is, becoming who he is most. Okay, let me tell you a story about someone whose favorite painter was Van Gogh.
It was 1995. I lived in San Francisco and was exhibiting my work in an outdoor art exhibition in San Francisco’s Union Square. It was one of those rare days in San Francisco. It was just hot as hell. I was sitting down when I noticed a young woman walk into my display area. She was looking at my work carefully, moving from one painting to the next. She seemed to be genuinely interested so I decided to approach her. By the time I was close enough to say something, she was leaning forward looking very intently at a particular painting and I heard her say, acknowledging my presence, “I wish I could do that.”
Oh my goodness, she said the magic words.
“Have you ever painted,?” I asked.
And she looked up toward me and I noticed – how could I not – that in addition to saying the magic words, she was quite attractive.
Now before any of you jump to the conclusion that I was some lecherous old geezer, I was single, still had dark hair, and wasn’t the basket of flab that I am now. Anyway, I quickly developed a strategy: I decided to project magnanimity.
“Well, you know, if you have a deep desire to paint like that, you can. All you need is someone to teach you how to express the visual sensations that move you.”
“So let me tell you what I’m going to do.”
A look of caution crossed her face.
“If you would like, I will give you a free lesson.”
“Yup. Are you free Friday night? I’ll set up a still life in my studio and I will walk you through the method I use. Trust me. If you are moved by what you see, I can teach you how to move others.”
“Yes young lady. It’s your lucky day!!”
No. I’m just making up that last line. But the rest of the story is true. Well, not entirely true. The painting above is not by Van Gogh. It was painted by the young lady who walked into my exhibition that day, Conchitina Miguel. If you’ve ever taken a class with me, you know her as my gracious and helpful wife who organizes our workshops and runs our gallery.
What I get a kick out of when I see the paintings that she does is that had she and I not met that day, the odds are pretty good that she never would have painted, ever. Unfortunately, Conchitina, while she paints when she can, really hasn’t painted that much over the years. (We are working on ways to make that change. Ahem!)
But the point is this: do you wish you could paint? And you are a bank executive making gazillions? Well, there is good news. I or some other teacher can set you free. You can become the person you are most. Of course, as with everything else, it takes time to learn, so there is a good deal of frustration. It comes with the territory (or used to!). But painting is an activity that can be joy driven when you let go of many valued but not terribly important things. So regardless of the results, when you paint, you have the chance to feel your strength and to exercise your powers. Find a good teacher and become more of who you really are. Forget the secret technique baloney; we are talking about your freedom to be you – but only more!
Thanks for playing along, Vincent. But the painting above was actually signed…
All things being equal, would you rather paint little plein-air paintings in one sitting (alla prima) or would you prefer painting larger paintings that require many sittings? I prefer the latter, hands down.
Below are the smallest plein air painting I’ve ever done (8.5 x 8.5 inches) and the largest (6 x 9 feet).
The painting on the left is the smallest. I guess the virtue of doing small paintings is that there are not the kind of weather problems that one confronts when painting large (as I shall describe in a moment). Small paintings, to me, are sketches really. Fun to simplify. Spontaneity is key. Bing, bang, boom and you’re out of there. And that, for me, is the problem. I’m unable to get drawn in. There’s not that transfiguration that mysteriously takes place after hours of searching. Besides, I don’t like treadmill, knowing that every time I paint, a tidy, finished product will result. Sure, once in awhile, then it’s play. But regularly? No. Then I feel house trained.
Below is my largest painting. Given the size, the painting required a lot of planning, and a few smaller studies. Plus it was a commission, so the process was a bit structured. But the size of the canvas was also an opportunity to be bold and splash around with a large brush (about a 12) and invite some titanic force of nature to emerge. Not possible with a dinky canvas.
The virtue of working big then, for me, is that you can do so much more with a large canvas. For example, here’s a golden oldie (from the mid ‘90s) that I did in San Francisco. In this painting of City Hall (3 x 6 ft), I built up the texture and was able, therefore, to drag subtle colors over the little textural bumps to get a sense of shimmering evening light. Impossible in a single sitting.
But the big negative with large canvases, however, is the weather. In the painting below (2’x4′), my intention was to go very deeply, to push the thing to the edge of abstraction, to await that unveiling that often appears when one is patient, when one surrenders.
I began the painting in April. My approach was to go slowly each evening for an hour or less as the sun was setting (the window when everything came together was really only about 25 minutes) and get consumed by the dazzling variety of subtle, changing color as the shadow crept up the mountain and, by contrast, the way the mountain became jewel-like as it reflected the setting sun. All of this would begin at around 6:30 PM or so and in April, when there was minimal humidity, the experience was a kind of a bright trippiness.
The detail to the left reveals the challenge. The warm, pervading blues in the large cast shadow seemed to sit behind the veil of warm green, at least on some of the evenings. I cannot get that sense of looking through atmosphere on small canvases or on canvases where one is forced to paint wet on wet.
On other evenings, the veil of quinacridone (left), seemed to slip down from a sky curtain, making some of the blues turn purpleish. So often, this pinky cool veil seemed to want to blanket everything.
On other evenings the bright yellows just didn’t appear. Instead, warm oranges took their place. I worked on this painting about a dozen separate evenings and as the weeks rolled by (keep in mind, I had to wait for an absolutely clear sunny evening), I began to realize that my dalliance with sharp, bright, flickering lemon yellows was drawing to a close. Spring was slipping away.
What to do? I had already shifted the entire painting first one way and then another, struggling to keep up with nature’s never-ending parade of colors. So I decided to wait. Sigh! The bright humid-free colors never returned.
Now, it is mid-summer, hot and hazy. The predominant tonality is a pinkish glow. Just wonderful. But I was seduced by those sparkling yellows and I needed more time to really see them, to get into a position where I could actually play with them. Moreover, now the summer sun is in a different position in the sky. The shadow now appears at about 8:30-9:00 PM and quickly covers the little village across the lake that was once just a jumble of sparkling light streaks. The truth finally sunk in. My seductress had left the building. Maybe I’ll wait until Spring next year and see what nature has to offer me. Or not. It’s complete in every stage, right? But I did want to go further. Please gods of color, one more date?
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy small studies too. But it is the difference between a single flower and an abundant garden overflowing. If I had my druthers, I would paint with an army of art Sherpas, helping with the easel and large canvases and keeping the palette fresh with about 40 colors, no 70 – or even more, wheeling in a new painting after about a half hour. Just looking for color, placing the color, not a care in the world, no results to worry about, never finishing, always beginning. Now, that would be the life.
A Plein Air Painter’s Manifesto
Remember when we learned cursive writing (back when it was taught!)? Our concentration was on the exactness of how we wrote each letter. The “a” goes up to the first line we closely observed, the “b” to the third and so on. In other words, we would be thinking about the results or the standard against which we were measured, as we wrote. Now, when we write, we think about what we want to say. As opposed to thinking about measuring up to a standard, we merely express ourselves.
The method is somewhat like that. The effort to scumble correctly(for example in the Underpainting stage) or to identify where values separate (in Construction and Reconstruction) eventually becomes second nature for the advanced painter as did her understanding of where the letters go in cursive writing. She doesn’t see the thing before her. She doesn’t think about the steps. She doesn’t think about how the work is coming out or finish because the process creates the work. She doesn’t even know where it is going or when she will stop (for me, this happens when I’ve said all I want to say or I’m tired or simply when the spell is broken, then I’m finished).
Matisse believed that “the invention of photography had released painters from the need to copy nature,” that they were then free to “present emotion as directly as possible and by the simplest means.” Van Gogh explained to his brother Theo: “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcibly.” Monet wrote about his endless effort to “render his feelings” as he painted. These artists are telling us that our task is getting to the rush of feelings. Then we express those feelings. Rush first, painting follows. That simple order was the priority of late-19th century painting. But if we do not cherish our feelings, if we do not understand that the measure of a painting are the feelings we have as we do it, or we are clueless about being captured by sensations and carried away, then painting methods are stripped of their soul. They no longer are means of expression but the mechanical means of manufacturing “luxury items,” as Wolf Kahn reminded us. The point of painting, added Kahn, is to enter a realm where we feel “larger.”
Here’s the problem. Over the past 100 plus years, the self-understanding of many great painters who worked at the turn of the last century, why they inveighed rather sharply against a rising commercial culture, for example, has by the 21st century passed from consciousness. Notice the insight of Alfred Sensier, close friend and biographer of Barbizon painters Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet, who wrote of the the way the Forest of Fontainebleau impacted painters: “They had reached such a pitch of over-excitement that they were quite unable to work…[they were] intoxicated….They were, in truth, possessed (emphasis added).” Now, if I were to say to you that you have a choice: in the upcoming workshop you can either produce and take home 10 saleable paintings or you can learn how to get possessed. Which would you choose?
Some of you will have figured this out; namely, that if you do learn how to get possessed, it is likely that you will have produced 10 saleable paintings along the way. Robert Henri, as stated in The Art Spirit, taught his students (Robert Brackman among them) that the key to painting was getting to what he called “extraordinary moments.” These moments drive the process, Henri argued. Brackman passed along this overarching concept to Schultz, and Schultz to me. To be honest, it took quite awhile before this larger purpose began to sink in for me. One reason is that such ideas, while always hovering about in the background of the classes I attended, were never really spelled out. So let me do that now. For plein-air artists who might see the advantage of learning how to enter realms of being where we see beyond the ordinary, the following points function as a manifesto:
- Understand That The Activity of Painting is Not About Production, That It Is About Expression: Painting is less about imitating what we see (making a “picture of”) or depending on the beauty of the subject matter for the beauty of the work and more about exercising and thus discovery our powers. We need to inject a life into a painting; otherwise, we might as well take a photo. Modernity turned on the notion that people are not defined by others (or larger cosmic orders) but are self-defining. Through the activity of painting, we demonstrate that we are capable of self-articulation. Through articulating what we find within us is to make who we are manifest. It is a bringing out of something to be.
- Use a Process That Produces the Work: Our loyalty to the work compels us to create a process that produces the work. This in turn allows us to slip into a realm of being where our sense of wonder is revitalized, where we are charmed. We journey into a set of connective feelings that lie just below the surface of ordinary perception. The painting just happens along the way.
- Don’t Master Nature, Surrender to It: When we attempt to master a living thing, we objectify it. We separate ourselves from it. When we surrender to a living thing, we become one with it. We allow it to speak to us, to capture us, to carry us away. And we do not know where the thing is going, where it is taking us. This is why we paint. (This is why I found it interesting that Sensier, above, observed that the painters were possessed by the forest.)
- Make Sure the Painting is Complete in Every Stage:[i] When the painting is always complete we are able to live in the feelings of the moment. To look for results constantly is to hold feelings in. Looking for results, wrestling a painting into a preconceived notion of finish uses up our emotions. Then we have less energy to invest in the present moment. All considerations that relate to the future, all external measures that hover over us as we paint subvert where we want to be, in moments of pure presence where we suddenly notice the marvelous specificity of things.
- Become Who You Are Most: When you have a formula or brand that works, it becomes a style. It satisfies the demands of the agent but we die in the process. Each painter has an original path. Our obligation is to live up to our originality. We do this by continually risking who we are most.
- Let Go of the Work: We give birth to the work, but the work is not who we are. We have to be willing to let go of the thing we create. As we grow, older work no longer speaks to us. Paintings are the rocks we grab on to as we climb higher.[ii] We let go of them, as we move forward. We aren’t in the same place for long. Don’t repeat what you do well. That is posing. Constantly move forward – push, risk, reach, go deeper. Failure is in the posing, not the falling.
- Be One With the Subject: As we surrender to nature, each of our touches on the canvas with our brush are parts of a conversation. Allow your subject to propel you beyond the realm of ordinary perception. We are always asking the work where do you want to go? What do you have to tell me?
- Respond Only to Sensations: We do not see the thing in itself (a house as a house, for example). We see only sensations. Our task is to learn new ways to be free, to be open to sensual prompts. We are artists, not merely painters; therefore we break the sensations of our visual experience into sensual pieces, where each piece is a passage into the realm of enchantment. We go through that passage – that exit – and then we put the pieces back together according to the poet within us.
- Play: Give greater expression to play. This means that we need to get back to innocence so that we again feel our childlike excitement about life. After all, we have mastered the means of expression. Now it is time to let the world know and feel who we are.
- I’ll end with an admonition from my teacher, Bill Schultz: “From the first stroke to the last, be an artist.”
Let me conclude with a look again at the schematic of the method, which in the previous blog, I called the “means of expression.” But this time let us look at it with the above discussion in mind. You will see that we may now think of the activity of painting as a set of opportunities. Each stage of the painting process is an opportunity to exit our ordinary realms of perception and functions as passage to that realm of enchantment where we feel larger and more alive – and yes, with any luck, possessed!
[ii] This is a metaphor that was used by David Viscott, a psychiatrist, who gave a workshop on creativity in the 1990s. I don’t believe his thoughts on creativity have been recorded anywhere. He died in 1996.
With September workshops not that far off, I thought it might be useful to go through the method of painting that I teach. We can trace this method, through various master artists, back to late-19th century Paris. It reflects not only the way some major artists moved through a canvas but it embodies an attitude or a mentality that I doubt is taught at all today, let alone spelled out. The “mentality” thing is the key, at least it was for me and I will get into that a bit further on.
I will break this summary into two blogs. Part I addresses some fundamental ideas that are applicable to anyone painting from nature. Part II, in a blog that follows, is a consideration for the advanced student.
Fundamental Concepts for All Students
In the schematic below, you will find what was called, when I was a student, “The Mechanics of Painting.” I never liked that title. It suggests that the process is an assembly line, which it is not and was never taught as such. I have borrowed a phrase from Cèzanne for the name change. Cézanne would always say, even late in life, how he needed to learn the “means of expression.” This perfectly describes what the essence of the method.
There are 5 stages one moves through. The first, Composition (in charcoal) is wiped off when one is certain that one is on the right track, in terms of composition, and wishes to move on to oil. We tend to make our worst mistakes in the first ten minutes so it behooves us to spend a bit of time in charcoal to insure that the composition will work.
The four remaining stages are an oscillation between line and color, in oil, where one moves from a very light study that emerges from the white canvas, to a darker interpretation of the subject. In this way, the painting, always complete, slowly unfolds and affords the painter a good deal of control over what she wishes to say.
Complete In Every Stage
There are several key aspects to this method. For example, the Underpainting stage (where we begin by scumbling in the dark values, then the middles, and we leave the lightest values open, or bare canvas) may be the most important stage because it establishes the atmosphere or tonality of the painting and gives the painting harmony. In addition, the Underpainting, because it is a complete painting in full color, accomplishes a good deal of the work of a painting. Therefore, we allow some of it to show through when we return to color in the Painting stage. Thus our painting strokes can be lyrical and more expressive. Also by leaving the lights open in the Underpainting stage, we are able to let some of the white canvas show through when we eventually paint into the lightest lights. This helps the lightest lights sparkle and feel light and airy. More on this below.
Let me draw your attention to one feature of this method that liberates the painter from having to think about finish and enables the advanced painter to be more expressive (see the following blog for more on this point). I am referring to the notion that a painting ought to be complete in every stage or, as Pissarro taught, paint the whole thing at once.
Remember the old Polaroid film that began developing before your eyes, slowly unfolding, growing richer and deeper during its developing process? Here’s how it looked:
Each of the images above, after the first “blank canvas” so to speak, is complete in terms of color and value relationships. It goes from high key to a lower one, but notice that the top of the stove is always about the same value as the floor. The red pot is always a little more red or warm than the orange thing behind it (a radio?). If this were a painting we would say that it is complete in every stage. One doesn’t have to think about anything that is in the future (finish or meeting some preconceived standard). Why? Because the method asks us to see nothing but line and color: we never see the subject before us. We are encouraged to get lost in line or in color or in the darks or the lights but we never think beyond a particular sensual experience or sensation. We are always in the moment. And because the painting is always complete, we may stop anywhere along the way.[i] The concept “finish” is inappropriate. The idea embedded in this process is that making a painting is not about production or like making cars that roll off the assembly line.[ii]
Let me give you examples of this process for a still life (10”x 20”) and a large lake painting (36”x 52”).
Below I’ve added details of each of the above paintings to show you that I “build with the color.” Remember, I do not cover the entire surface of the painting with brushstrokes in the painting stage. It is important to allow previous layers (such as the Underpainting or the canvas itself) to show through so that as one places one stroke of color against the other, one is able to see past the surface layer and down into the painting.
With the white of the canvas showing through in the lightest lights, the lights shimmer and the painting feels more like light and less like paint. By layering the brushstrokes, the painting is able to breathe; otherwise it would feel “plugged up.”
In the following blog, I explain how the method serves the interest of the advanced student.
[i] I would like to show you a common way of painting that is quite in conflict with what I teach. This de Chirico painting is an example of a painting process that is more like manufacturing, where the painting obtains value only when the last piece is in place because that is the only time when the painting is complete. Then it is “finished.” Spontaneous moves are less available to him. He is not likely to allow himself to be carried away in a direction that he did not anticipate.
[ii] Look at Whistler’s Nocturne , San Giorgio. Would you say that the work is finished? The concept makes no sense, just as it doesn’t if were to say that the 8 year old child isn’t finished. It’s alive. It’s complete. It’s an expression of Whistler.
The following 27 slides represent a powerpoint presentation that I gave to my winter classes in the US where I explored the notion of painting as enchantment. The notion that there is a “mood” or “extraordinary moment” or “state of being,” often described as a “thrill,” a “rush,” childhood “innocence,” or a sense of feeling “larger” that enables a painter to feel “more intensely alive” or “see beyond the ordinary,” has been talked about by painters for quite some time. The notion especially intrigued me ever since I achieved the ability to produce correct paintings that were dead on arrival, decades ago.
For example, Manet tells us that we are not painters unless we are “moved.” Monet reveals that his orientation as a plein-air painter turned on a “total-self surrender” before the “sensations” of nature, so much so that he tried his best not to see the thing (as a thing) before him. Cèzanne explains how nature talks to him, how he “vibrates,” and at times, “germinates” before the “sensations” of nature and “realizes” who he is. Renoir and Matisse emphasize how the expressive process is driven by various feelings and pleasures. Picasso, Baudelaire, and Henri, in this regard, make reference to the sense of wonder one experiences as a child. Mallarmè speaks of the virtue of feeling “pure presence.” Henri goes so far as to suggest that entering into this mood makes art “inevitable.”
It was with delight, then, that I found Jane Bennett’s (whom I’ve referenced before in this blog) thoughts on enchantment. Although Bennett is not telling an art story but a story about the liveliness of matter and the “peculiar mood” of enchantment as it “erupts amid the everyday” in modern life, and especially as it relates to ethics, her descriptions of this peculiar mood, what might induce it, or what the experience might be like, struck me as instruction, reaching back across the decades: this is what you painters (as opposed to the writers) have been trying to say: “give greater expression to the sense of play;” “hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things;” become “enamored with existence;” stay in the “moment of pure presence;” and “you’ll discern details previously ignored.” Thus the powerpoint presentation (made into a video), before you now, contains a good deal of Bennett’s lush and nuanced use of language, unattributed, given that in the presentations I was able to explain Bennett’s contribution verbally.
One note of caution: Monet implored his followers to understand that the “excitement and ecstasy” he expressed, or “his passion for nature,” was not rooted in some sense of a “fairyland.” Rather, he emphasized that the “joy” that he derived from painting was not separate from a kind of “torment.” Bennett, herself, suggests that the experience of enchantment is both one of feeling “charmed and disturbed,” one of feeling “wonder and unease.” We will come back to why enchantment, when it is engaged with other orientations of modern life, carries with it a touch of discomfort.
 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, (Princeton University Press, 2001)
 Eugene Boudin (Monet’s primary teacher) and Edouard Manet both used precisely these same terms; namely, that “joy” and “torment” were linked.
I feel remiss in not writing more about craft. I worry that for the non-painter, the subject of craft may be boring. But alas, with workshops on the horizon, I feel compelled to wade into the craft-weeds, so to speak!
When I demonstrate the way in which I move from a white canvas to a complete painting, probably the one concept that students have most difficulty with is the concept that is called the “separation of values.” That’s a mouthful, I know. It’s painting jargon for the word “line.” Hang in there. I will tie this altogether in a moment, but let me toss in one other aspect to painting that is not talked about enough, if ever, especially in the context of craft.
The wonderful thing about painting from nature is that one is able to feel the liveliness and energy of the world in which we are born into and surrounded by, if only we take the time to examine the thing we are looking at with a degree of interest. If we slow down and open ourselves to nature, nature responds; it suggests things to us, reveals specificity that we all too often do not notice. This is what is meant when Robert Henri says, “Don’t draw a line, draw an inspired line.” But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s get back to the notion of values, first, and then move on to the lines that emerge when values separate.
1. What are Values?
Above are six blocks of color. Below are the same blocks in black and white. You can see how the colors move from the lightest to the darkest. This is what is meant by the value of a particular color or thing; that is, on a black and white scale, how something is either dark or light in relation to something else.
2. Our Still Life (Note: it isn’t “still;” it is very much alive!)
This is our still life that we wish to construct; therefore, we need to see and feel where values separate. Value separations and lines are the same thing!
3. First, We Must Squint
Whenever we paint, we must squint and then compare one thing against another. This is because we need to see relationships: what is darker or lighter than something else. (The same is true for judging color, by the way). So I have made the image blurry to convey the sense of squinting.
Squinting also enable us to see the whole or the emotional dust called atmosphere. Squinting enables us, then, to pass into a different realm of sensory perception.
4. Seeing and Feeling Value Relationships
As we squint, we want to feel all the parts as one thing, the whole. In the image above I have eliminated color so that we can better compare values. With the letter “A,” I am pointing to two areas, for example, where I see values separating. We now see that a separation occurs where there is an abrupt change in value. It’s a kind of boundary. So, I place a line in these places, and the more intense the separation, the more intense the line.
In the areas marked “B” there are changes in value, but the changes are gradual; but there are no separations and hence no lines.
5. Placing A Line Where There Are Value Separations
6. The Construction: Where We Perceive the Subject as Line
The image on the left is the Construction; however, it is computer generated from the above photos so it reads rather mechanical; which is to say, without feeling. Keep in mind that each stage is also a way to move into a realm of seeing where we experience just one part of the subject before us.
7. An Example From Real Life
This is a photo of the still life I used in a demonstration.
And this is the final painting from that demonstration. Obviously, there were other steps along the way, but I want to show you that we begin with a line drawing based upon value separations. Once we understand the concept of value separations, the key is trying to be one with your subject.
Remember: our subject matter is lively. It is not inert. Therefore, it is possible to feel the lines that nature reveals or suggests to us. Don’t draw a line, draw an inspired line.
A similar discussion can be had about color. But we will save that discussion for another day.
“Without atmosphere a painting is nothing.” – Rembrandt
I would have to agree with Rembrandt. Unfortunately, ever since the teaching of painting passed from the studios of master-artists to the university during the 50s and 60s (in the US), the emphasis shifted from the visual experience per se (and what it did for the painter) to “language” (and the painter’s social commentary).[i] Plein-air painting, along with easel painting generally, fell by the wayside, at least in terms of what art industry elites considered “important.” So it is not surprising that even among today’s very good plein-air painters, the sense of atmosphere, all too often, is woefully lacking. The teaching of how to see atmosphere or what to look for with regard to it is, for the most part, gone with the wind. Let me, then, provide you examples of work, both brimming with and in need of a sense of atmosphere.
First, let’s clarify the term tone or tonality. Tonality refers to the sense of atmosphere achieved in a painting. As you can see in the image to the left, we, on planet earth, live within atmosphere, forever and always. There is no escaping it. But depending on the angle of the sun, the moisture in the air, and other conditions, the color of the tonality varies. And even in a given setting, the tonality is dynamic, which means that it is always changing. Think of tonality, then, as a color term.
Monet emphasized this extensively. He talked about “rendering the feeling” of seeing “the same light spread over everything.” “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right,” said Monet, “since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value…. what I want to reproduce is what exists between the subject and me. ”
Here’s an illustration of what it means to say that the same light is spreading over everything. In the two still lives on the left, I used the same apples, cloth, and leaves. The only change (apart from the composition) is the light. In the top still life, I used a warm spot light to illuminate the still life. I was not able to see the apples, etc. except by seeing them through the warm light. In the bottom still life, the light was natural north light; thus you can see a silvery light bathing everything. Bottom line: it is impossible to paint on planet earth without having to see through atmosphere. In fact, we never actually see the subject. Rather, we see the surrounding atmosphere envelop the subject.
The painting to the left is by Monet, of course. The haystack is practically eaten alive by atmosphere. But notice, too, that the tonality is not just one color sprinkled about. The tonality consists of “ishes,” that is, greenish, pinkish, purplish, etc. colors. They are veils of atmosphere and they are moving. This is something that a photograph simply cannot capture. Photographs are paper, not photons.
The two details below are taken from the Monet painting: the one on the left is a piece of the sky, horizon, and field. The one on the right is just the field, on the edge of the cast shadow. Notice how whether we look into the darks of the haystack, the grass within cast shadow, or the sky – the colors are similar for the simple reason that Monet had to see through “the same light spread over everything.”
Some Good Bad Examples[iii]
Let us take a look at the work of contemporary artists where there is no tonality. These are just tiny details of much larger work:
The above three images are details of the work of anonymous artists. They are all strong painters with a good sense of color. In the image to the left, one sees the peak of a very distant mountain, the color of which is very different from that of a closer tree line and cacti. The sky while interesting in color also feels separate from the mountain and the foreground (in terms of color). They cannot be in the same light. The painting lacks harmony and unity because it lacks tonality. In the center image, the problem is the same. The red barn does not feel as though it were in the same light that bathes the green trees and grass.
The image to the right suggests to me that the painter does have a sense of atmosphere. There is a softness that lends a kind of harmony, but it also appears to me that the painter is seeing the separate elements as separate parts. If the sky is pinkish, some of that pinkish ought to be found in the mountains and the field. If there is a blue coolness to the mountains, that same coolness ought to be evident as well in the field and the sky. In attending to these challenges, there is no formula, of course; it is simply a matter of feeling the whole and of allowing oneself to be captured by the light that is spread everywhere.
Tonality may be the most important element in plein-air painting and yet in our post-visual visual art world, it is largely absent for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that painters today, as opposed to 130 years ago, see themselves as entrepreneurs.[iv] Whereas the Parisian artist of the late 19th century may have been obsessed with “rendering” what he or she felt, the obsession of the contemporary painter is more likely to be with marketing, productivity, and sales. So what, you say? Let me then give you a glimpse into the minds of two great artists who worked 100 years ago (Matisse and Monet) and who both believe that the entrepreneurial turn tended to subvert their create power.
Matisse noted that there was a “rift between the dealer and the painter, even if they are chums. The dealer has goals of his own. He’s not on the same side as the painter.” (When have you heard that lately?) Continued Matisse: when a painter is “…concerned with success, he works with just the one idea: pleasing people and selling. He loses the support of his own conscience and is dependent on how others are feeling. He neglects his gifts and eventually loses them (emphasis added).”
I’m fully aware of the constraints that the contemporary painter, who wishes to make a living with her work, confronts. My effort here is to suggest pathways of escape from such corrosive pressures, or avenues that might enable one to cross over into another realm of being, in order that our “gifts” are not lost as we go about putting food on the table. Monet is suggestive here: “People who hold forth on my paintings conclude that I have arrived at the ultimate degree of abstraction and imagination that relates to reality. I should much prefer to have them acknowledge what is given, the total self-surrender.” Standing before nature with brush in hand in a posture of total self-surrender, I am soaring. I am honing my gifts. And marketing? Please! Don’t disturb me. You’ll break the spell. The last thing I want to be is a dumb old fish that doesn’t know it swims in water. My first priority is to strengthen my gifts and this requires an absolute dedication to the honing of the marvelous specificity of things or a total self-surrender.
For those of you who wish to see more examples of tonality, I add the following images with annotations.
The above sequence depicts a pastel by Degas. When we look closely (center and right image), we see greenish, bluish, and grayish marks covering areas of the flesh and cloth. This is the air (atmosphere or tonality) that exists between Degas and the model. Can you see how it lends harmony and value to the whole?
The above images are Cèzanne. In the two images to the right, one can see more easily a warm bluish veil between Cèzanne and everything – grass, sky, flesh, cloth – as the atmosphere pervades or bathes everything.
Tonality is not a feature only of Impressionism. The above image is a detail of a painting by Sorolla. Notice the light bluish gray strokes in the leaves and the light bluish and greenish strokes in the flowers. Yes, it is subtle. But great art is in the subtlety. And yes, most people will see, in this case, only pretty flowers, not the defiant reach of the painter, seeing deeply. So it goes.
The above work is a “pastel drawing” (as opposed to a “pastel painting” in which the entire sheet of paper is covered) by Robert Brackman, my teacher’s teacher. The artist who does a pastel drawing must be very adept at tonality.
It goes like this: the paper is the atmosphere and, therefore, the subject matter must exist within the color and value of the paper. The artist chooses a passage of light, the colors of which must be translated into the harmony of the given atmosphere (the paper). Here is where it gets tricky: in order to do this, the paper, as a middle value must be integrated into the subject where there are middle values. So in parts of the headscarf and the bottom portions of each breast, for example (as shown in the left and center images above) only the paper is used (that is, left open). Notice in the image on the right, how Brackman allows the right side of the subject matter to simply melt back into the paper by using tender lines, but no color.
This is the work of a true master. As with much of the other examples above, most people will not appreciate the accomplishment. So many drawings, even by very good artists, show the artist working right to the edge of everything and it ends up looking like a cut-out glued to the paper.[v] Notice the color, too: the purple in the headscarf, the bright red ear, which when seen from a distance (look at the full image), are wonderfully and properly related. Notice too the “prismatic edges” (colorful edges) – which must be seen, not made up – that help the subject matter turn back into the paper in the passages receiving full light.
Here’s the kicker: yes, Brackman was a master tonalist (but not a tone painter) and when he first began studying painting with Robert Henri, among others, he did nothing but underpaintings for seven years! Extreme? Well, you be the judge.
Finally, let me end with this. As I just mentioned, Brackman’s study of atmosphere was undertaken in the underpainting stage. So here’s an example of an underpainting stage by yours truly:
This is the stage where one “scumbles” a very dry and thin application of color using a sweepy scrubby method. Applying the paint this way makes it possible to get the feeling of “veils of atmosphere” or as Whistler (another master of tonality) said, “It is like breath on glass.” One scumbles in the darks and the middles and leaves the lights open. It is high key because it is the first application of color on a white canvas, so one must creep toward darker colors. But the painting in this stage is complete as is, or if one chooses to go further, it invites the application of paint more thickly, one stroke at a time, building with the color, over the top of it but not totally covering. One allows the underpainting – the tonality – to come through, even in the painting stage.
[i] This is what is meant when “experts” say that paintings that turn on social commentary, as opposed to visual experience, have “content.” Plein-air painting, from their point of view, is devoid of content.
[ii] The term tonality is often conflated with values. But this is an error. “Values” refers to the relative lightness or darkness of something whereas “tonality” or “tone” refers to the color of light in which the subject matter is located. While it is true that values and tonality are linked (a painting whose values are incorrect will not have a true sense of tonality), value can be demonstrated in a black and white photo, for example. Tonality cannot be demonstrated by any photo; it is the very color quality of light, shimmering, twinkling, changing – think veils – that envelops and surrounds everything.
[iii] I debated whether to scan the internet and find the work of artists which I would then label “good bad examples.” Sigh! All is fair for educational purposes. I did select little details so as to hide the identity of the artists. And for you educationally minded bloggers out there, my work is fair game!
[iv] When one reads the letters of the Impressionists, for example, one finds an endless stream of invective directed at the “bourgeoisie.” It is instructive to note that in all the literature on Impressionism that I have seen, nowhere does anyone explain this hostility carefully. It is beyond the scope of this little blog, but suffice it to say that the institutions that cohere in any given society encourage certain beliefs, relationships, and practices while discouraging others. With the rise of the bourgeoisie (whom we would call entrepreneurs) most of the Impressionists believed that the rising set of bourgeoisie (whom we would call entrepreneurs) believed that their sense of freedom and their approach to painting was being discouraged. Hence, you have painters like Matisse saying, a few years later, that the dealer and the painter are not on the same side.
[v] This is graffiti from Mexico. It’s pretty impressive. I wish I could do it. But there is no tonality.
Readers of this blog may know that I am fond not only of Wolf Kahn’s work (he says that he does “non-descriptive landscapes”), but also his approach to painting. He’s now 87 and his point of view, which resonates with views articulated in late-19th century Paris, is instructive.
I call your attention to a recent talk he gave entitled Control and Letting Go. I encourage all to watch the talk; he is very funny, using his forgetfulness to full advantage. Here are a few of the points he makes:
- If you aim in a painting, you know too much where you want it to go, you’re already at a great disadvantage because it means that all the alternative moves – you can’t make them – don’t fit into your scheme.
- The one thing you don’t want to know how to do, as a painter, is knowing how to do the thing too well ahead of time. You don’t want to make it into a performance. There has to be a bit of uncertainty attached to it.
- You are constrained by things you’ve done before.
- Students have to learn control, to do the thing so that it comes out right. As soon as you are no longer a student, you better forget all that and become something else. Become an amateur again.
- The thing that being an artist forces you constantly to value and to chase after is the idea of freedom. You don’t want to be constrained in your work. You don’t want to feel that there’s limits to it.
We have seen these ideas before: painting is not about the product as much as it is about the painter growing, becoming larger, more of who she already is. Anything that compels us to stick with what we do well is a constraint, a limitation (think of all the jobs that you have had in which you are rewarded for doing precisely that).
That to escape from the constraints of career and the market – to site obvious constraints – is to return to “amateurism;” ie, the pure love of doing where the known end or finish is non-existent. Many others, as I have noted elsewhere, have used the idea of returning to innocence or to the ways a child who is “in wonder” in relating to the world.
These ideas, on first glance, seem congenial to our way of life. But I caution the reader: if you are interpreting Kahn’s self-understanding as some sort of touchy-feely new-age bromide, you are misunderstanding his instruction entirely. What he is saying is actually quite subversive of the way in which we, as a society, organize production. Imagine a worker, also born with the same creative urges as any “artist,” showing up one day and declaring, “Sorry, I’m going for a walk. I feel constrained by my previous work. I’m unable to make all the alternative moves that are deep within me because they don’t fit into your scheme.”
I recall one student asking with regard to making paintings, “What’s wrong with efficiency?” Nearly all students are fixated on finishing. Still others, who have enjoyed success with a particular result, continue with reproducing that result because they are good at it. These orientations are woven into standard practices called manufacturing. All of us are educated as manufacturers. We paint as if manufacturing hormones controlled just about every aspect of our art lives, from the process itself to marketing. Pissarro long ago said that a painter ought to move in the opposite direction from a manufacturer. Kahn is explaining to us ways of doing that. Let me give you an example.
I first met Jo McGovern about 10 years ago when she took a workshop with me. I can’t say that I remember her work from back then, but she herself was memorable. I have had few students who would express such utter frustration when things didn’t go right as did Jo.
Over the years (I believe she took three more workshops) it became clear to me that, indeed, her work was showing signs of life. She still would get noticeably upset from time to time and I told her what my teacher told me (my personality being similar to hers): “It’s fine to be disappointed with what you are doing. It’s even a healthy thing. But don’t be so hard on yourself that you stop painting.”
During one workshop, I told Jo: “Look, if you really want to be serious about this, do nothing but underpaintings for at least a year. Make many beginnings. Don’t finish.” I have told this to a number of students but few take me up on the challenge. Jo did.
The next time I saw her, she showed me the dozens of underpaintings she had been working on. They were nice, not great. Her palpable frustration, however, had turned into palpable determination.
Another few years went by. We exchanged a few emails and I thought she had disappeared. Then a few weeks ago Jo sent me about a half dozen images of her recent work. Wow! I was blown away. This stuff was really good!
You can see one of the paintings I have inserted here. What strikes me about it is precisely the kind of thing that Kahn talks about. It is a landscape and Jo’s control is manifest: it reads as a whole, it’s not plugged up. I can see through layers. There is a nice tonality or atmospheric harmony. The colors aren’t artificially punched up for effect – she knows what she is doing.
But notice too how the whole thing doesn’t turn on description. Jo isn’t being literal. It’s really not about the beauty of the building or beach scene. I don’t even know what half of those little things at the bottom are. It’s not a picture. It’s Jo.
When I look at it I feel her excitement. The brushstrokes are marvelous. They make me want to keep looking at the sky. It looks like she is carefree, having fun, enjoying life. At the same time that she is in control, she is letting go. Which brings me back to Kahn:
“Be inventive, careless, and irreverent, and playful. The word playful has got to be used more often. I think an artist should always remember that he’s always doing a dance. That he’s doing something that’s not terribly serious. And it should be taken lightly.”
Inventive, careless, and irreverent, and playful. The painting itself should be taken lightly. It’s a good way for a painter to be. Pissarro would approve.