The scourge of the writer… it’s time to begin the story, but where? When? Who? How?
For the visual artist, it’s “the blank white canvas,” stark, flat and looking very much like the white snow-filled scene outside my studio window on this January day. I may or may not know what my next subject will be, but I know it’s my time to begin. My muse has been fomenting for days, ready to go, but unsure of the direction.
I came across a very interesting blog post recently, “From start to finish: the production of a single,” written by Dan Charness, musician, songwriter and poet. One of his readers asked, “How do you write a song?” He replied by stating “that no two songwriters really have the same exact method for creating a song; however, individuals often have methods that they swear by.” And he goes on to share the process of writing one of his recent songs.
The question, “How do you paint a painting?” comes to mind each and every time I start a new painting. The first and perhaps the foremost concern is what size canvas will I use. Sometimes, if I am using a reference of sorts, the answer is pretty straightforward. Landscapes are usually horizontal and portraits are usually vertical (as are paintings of tall white birch trees). This is all well and good, but since I usually don’t use a reference, I have to find an alternative method of making a decision.
In reality, it’s an economic question. If I have quantities of paint, I can go larger; but, if I’m running low and the tubes are rolled to the top, I’ll have to use a smaller canvas.
The next step is laying out my color palette. This means putting paint (oils in my case) in some order around the edges of a palette, the “thin board on which artists mix paints.” – Webster’s New World Pocket Dictionary.
Early on in my career as a painter, I was taught exactly how to lay out the paints forever and ever. On the left-hand side of the board (I never used a board. I use glass or Plexiglas with a neutral colored cardboard underneath it.) we start with light yellow, move through other yellows, next to the reds – again lightest to darkest – ochre, burnt sienna, sap green, viridian and last, but very important, ultramarine blue. In the lower right hand corner, we would need a large pile of white. There is to be no black on the palette; if you want black, just mix the three primaries (y, g, r) and there you have it.
Brushes of various sizes, shapes and bristles (from synthetic, to mongoose, to sable) are neatly arranged in the perfect container (from soup can to ceramic mug) just above or to the side of the edge of the palette.
I believe this “palette” dates back hundreds of years and was the preferred palette of classically trained artists. Today, I need cerulean blue (for the “big” sky), Naples yellow (for the sand beneath my feet) and pthalo blue/green (for the sea). My paintings are created with knives (sometimes, incorrectly called “palette knives” which were used to mix paints) forks, ice scrapers, sponges and fingers (wearing latex gloves in deference to the fear of blood poisoning).
I don’t know if you can call my most recent paintings (not available for viewing at this time, but stay tuned) abstract expressionism, abstracted landscapes or just plain abstract. They are however, examples of whatever the mind can conceive, the mind can achieve – usually accomplished to music of some sort (from Piaf and Aznavour, to Sinatra and Coltrane with classical and country in between).
…it’s been two days since my previous entry, during which time I have come to realize that by telling you all about the material aspects of painting, I have managed to avoid the most meaningful part of the process; that of my thoughts and emotions.
This is what actually happened as I began to put paint my canvas:
I was in an upbeat mood, loving the beauty and the quiet of the day. I chose a swinging Frank Sinatra as background music and it was perfect because I knew all the words and could sing along with Frank. As I faced the canvas, knife in hand, I did not have any thoughts about what I might be painting (although on some level, I knew it would be abstract and have a lot of red and black in it). I took my large knives, set them on the little roller cart and began the process of picking up paint and making marks on the canvas, occasionally using a paper towel to push or thin out the paint in spots. Once in a while, I’d use my latex-gloved fingers to make additional marks. I felt elated and very free.
At about the two-hour point, I became aware of some lower back pain and a slight sinus headache, so I knew this session would have to conclude shortly. I moved back and looked at my canvas – as if for the first time. I liked what I saw – free, fresh marks defining shapes flowing one to another. Black, ivory and red with a touch of yellow and one scrape of cobalt blue, but all on the left side of the canvas. I can’t explain why.
The next day, returning to my canvas, I was in a completely different place. My left-brain was in overdrive. My right brain was asleep at the switch… but, I decided to paint anyway (this time with Rod Stuart as my accompanist) because I knew my next couple of days were booked. As I stood there, I was trying to figure out how to “continue,” what shapes would “fit” and what new colors might “match.” I felt frustrated, then anxious and then ready to quit – but I didn’t. I persevered, painting and scraping, adding and subtracting until I finally finished the right side of the canvas, integrating it with the left, adding orange for a “pop.” It was a definite challenge. But, I don’t think the struggle will be evident. If it is, then that’s as it was meant to be. I felt satisfied and ready for a nap.
Have you ever wanted to paint, write a poem, or story, play an instrument, knit or weave, cook like Julia Childs, make a snowman, run a race… or anything else which has just been beyond your grasp, lingering in the back of your mind? Well, remember:
“Whatever the mind can see and believe,
the mind can achieve.”
– Napoleon Hill
I know for a fact that this is true. Go ahead. Trust yourself and just do it. You will be so glad you did.