It’s About Being Creative

I sometimes encountered a bass player named David in a floating garage band that met in two places. Each location had its own roster of musicians, but I limped along at both venues strumming rhythm guitar. I was mediocre at best.  One day David chided me about my playing and said, “You know, sometimes it’s about being creative!”

He referred to my uninspired chords when we played extended jams that spiraled out for ten minutes plus. All songs stayed in E, and I ran out of ways to vary my approach after the first three minutes. I wanted to tell Dave that I might be a bit more creative if I had played guitar as long as he had, but I expected no understanding from him. He’d forgotten that he’d sucked when he first picked up a guitar, no longer remembered that his creativity was the product of instincts and muscle memory built up over years of practice.

I eventually gave up playing music in a group when it became clear that I didn’t have the drive or talent to improve significantly, and when I realized that I felt no special thrill even when I managed contribute a few choice licks. It all seemed a bit mechanical and boring compared to writing a poem or painting a picture.

Years earlier I met similar criticism at the University of Delaware. One instructor pressured me to vary the surface texture of my paintings (he made thick, painterly abstractions). Another criticized the stiffness and timidity of my brushwork. He demonstrated what he meant by taking my brush and making quick, fluid strokes that enlivened dead passages on my painting. Both professors expressed frustration with me when I did not follow their advice. They assumed that I was a tightly wound, repressed individual who would forever cling to a narrow range of effects.

I understood what they wanted, but couldn’t deliver it. I had to paint another seven or eight years before my brushwork became more spontaneous, before I learned how to paint thick, expressive passages with complex textures.

In both music and painting I understood that “it’s about being creative,” but I had a deeper desire to improve when it came to making fine art. And I gave myself time to experiment and fail. My painting technique eventually grew freer, the results got better, and my creativity blossomed.

I recently grew irritated with a student who rigidly stuck to her customary mode when painting an abstraction. She continually reverted to copying from a subject verbatim, held her brush in a death grip, and made scratchy little marks.  She refused to create rhythmic distortions in shapes, to flatten forms, to experiment with color. Instead she turned her picture into a muddy Impressionist mess.

I felt an urge to tell her to loosen up, to experiment, to make new choices. I almost said, “You know, it’s about being…”

 

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R-nnn-Argh

DSC_0184 (2)R-nnnn-Argh, oil/canvas,  30×40″

I completed this painting last week after putting in some intensive work this summer.  I completed the first stage in 2012 (monochrome underpainting), but had no time or will to consistently work on it the last four years.

I used a fairly painstaking method in the second and third stages:   glazing and scumbling colors over the monochrome underpainting (like tinting a black and white photo).  At times I put off painting because it seemed too daunting to finish, and I regretted trying something new (an old master technique applied to photo-collage subject matter) on such a large scale.  I realize a few years back that it would have been a lot smarter for me to do this as portrait on a smaller canvas in partial homage to Jim Nutt’s latest series.

I abandoned R-nnnn-Argh for a year after finishing the background figures and landscapes.  I felt exhausted just looking at it.  The central man’s face seemed like an endless terrain when I first began to work on it, and I remember the tedium of painting waves and the folds in the fisherman’s shirt.

I recently began to work on it again, and to actually enjoy the process.  The only thing that slowed down the final stages was the heat in my studio.  In the summer, my air conditioner fails to keep the temperature under ninety degrees after 1 p.m., and I have to quit when I start to feel the symptoms of heat exhaustion.

If you’re trying to decipher the imagery, try reading Edgar Allen Poe’s, “The Man Who Was Used Up”.

Last night I pulled out another long term project:  “Higgins Didn’t Make It”, a faux science fiction painting.  I hope it won’t take me as long to finish this one, but I believe that I started it in 2013.  Time to get it done.

Higgins Didn't Make ItHiggins Didn’t Make It

Naked People

DSC_0132 (2)Hillary (charcoal, 20 minute pose)

I took a Drawing I class at the University of Dayton, and we drew boxes the first class.  The second we drew a model wearing a bathing suit.  By midterm the models wore nothing, but by then I had become habituated to seeing nude men and women on the modeling stage.  The problems of figuring out basic proportions and drawing hands and feet outweighed any shock I felt from seeing body after body.

I took a life drawing class the next semester.  The process was familiar, but the instructor demanded more.  And my classmates drew on a much higher level.  I felt intimidated, so I learned to steal from the best.  Gary drew like an angel–I couldn’t figure out how he captured a human figure and it’s surrounding space with a few lines.  But I noticed that he always included a rug or the section of the stage on which the model stood.  He showed a bit of depth that way.  I stole that.  Dave made bravura marks for emphasis after he had the main forms down.  I stole that.  Violet accented junctions where two planes came together, pop-pop-pop all around the drawing.  The accents created points of tension that countered the long lines flowing along the length of an arm or a leg.  Beautiful.  I stole that.

The models had varying attitudes toward their work.  One emaciated woman cringed before dropping her robe.  She slumped onto a cushion at the shadowed back of the stage, stared at the floor the whole time she posed, and answered the professor in monosyllables.  I felt guilty drawing her.  A short man with a muscular body held his head high and relaxed into his poses.  He lost his detached composure once when he caught me glaring at his groin.  I was trying for a third time to correctly draw the juncture where the thigh inserts into the hip, but he mistook my frustration for an odd reaction to the sight of his privates.  I shifted my gaze and drew his knees after I saw him frown back at me.  A redhead struck long, languorous poses.  Her lips curled in a lazy smile as she directed inappropriate jokes at the male students.  She’d say, “Well, boys, what are you looking at?” and “See anything you like, boys?”  During breaks she’d don a robe and walk around the class to inspect our drawings.  She didn’t bother to use a tie, and her garment gaped open as she stood next to us.  She had a crush on Gary and lingered at his drawings.  One day she exclaimed, “You make me look so beautiful!”  After she returned to the stage Gary slowly, deliberately erased her face off the drawing.

I eventually became an art instructor and taught life drawing with nude models.  I learned from painful experience to give my students a lecture about art room etiquette before a first lesson.  I say, ” One:  the model has not come to class to socialize with you.  I am not running a dating service, and you will not ask for a phone number.  Two:  you will not touch the model.  Three:  you will not make personal remarks or jokes about the model.  Four:  you will not photograph the model.  Five:  treat the model with respect.  If you cannot follow these rules I’ll kick you out of class, and you’ll have to find a way to make up for the missing drawings on your own.  That will cost you time and money.”  Then I give them examples of bad behavior.  “A student stood three feet away from a model and told me that the model was too ugly to draw…A woman in a figure painting class made a bad sketch of the model.  When the model returned to the stand after a break the student tried to twist the model’s arms and legs to match the mangled contortions of her drawing…A student, an older woman wearing a baggy sweater and bifocals, confronted a model on the first day of class.  She shouted, ‘Jezebel!  Jezebel!’ when the model opened her robe.”

I believe that the close study of a face and body (scars and all) is a way of honoring an individual’s history and humanity.  But some of my beginning drawing students refuse to draw from a nude person, even if the model is of their gender.   Religious faith trumps acceptance of the human form.  I give my moral protestors an alternative.  I send them out of the classroom to draw nudes from old master prints and paintings.  They never complain about that form of nudity–it’s second hand nature doesn’t compromise their principles.  I no longer bother to tell them that Raphael, Rubens and Da Vinci drew directly from models, that Western Art is based on the unembarrassed study of naked people.  If I did they’d only think that I was making excuses for my sins.

DSC_0133 (2)Joyce (oil on canvas)

The Reality Party

s-p-painting-2Self-Portrait, oil/canvas, 12×9″

Reality is a slippery thing.  Every time I paint a portrait I discover that my mood and the mood of the sitter creeps into the paint. The expression of a painting can completely change if a slight twist of the lips or a squint in the eye is added.  How do I catch the reality of a person if they keep metamorphosing right in front of me?  Objects in still lives are easier to pin down, but if I look at them long enough I discover hidden shades and colors that I hadn’t noticed before, and my perception of the whole is changed.  Landscape subjects flicker and move continuously with every stray breeze or the passing of a cloud.  What then is real about a street or a tree?  Nothing is still and unchanging if I’m really paying attention.

Is it worthwhile to keep looking for reality?  I think so.  Reality is a process of discovery, of finding new things in what appears to be obvious and familiar.  It cannot be circumscribed or pinned down, but its open-ended nature makes life that much richer and mysterious.  Art critics have long ago declared that realistic art is dead, and those who persist in this tradition are morticians applying cosmetics to a corpse that should have been buried long ago.  But of course the naysayers are not practitioners in capturing reality and have no idea that it is an ever expanding field.

DSC_1215                         Bust, charcoal, 17×14″

I’ve been following the news about the Democratic Party and their search for a new message that will revitalize political fortunes for its brethren.  I’ve also been thinking about the Republican drift into fantasy and anger driven polemics.  The GOP has based its political fortune on stoking the fury of its adherents by offering them false narratives.  Scapegoating, denying science, flag waving in the service of suppressing dissent, and ignoring the facts of recent history are some of the tools they’ve employed to seize power.

If the Democrats truly want to distinguish themselves and to set an original agenda they could identify themselves as the Reality Party.  Search out the real, proclaim it, and offer concrete solutions in response.  Never try to recreate a world that has long past, but respond to problems as they arrive with a clear eyed resolve to do the best for the most people.  Never promise a one size fits all solution to any one dilemma facing our country, but attack any difficulty with all the tools at hand.  If there are no tools, then figure out how to make them.

Wouldn’t it be great if politics graduated from its current practice of engaging in ceaseless dogfights for cash, influence and power?  What if Lincoln’s vision of a government that is “by the people and for the people” came to fruition and our elected officials focused on doing practical things for the benefit of all?  I’d vote for any candidate that fit that bill regardless of party affiliation.

I sometimes tell my Drawing I students that I’m teaching them to search for What Is.  They often prefer to hold onto What They Think Is There.  They struggle with the basics of perspective because they refuse to draw what they see and hold tight to drawing what they thing ought to be there.  Some get upset when they discover that their assumptions about reality are wrong or do not predict all possibilities.  But if they stick with the process they discover that What Is is a wonderful field of open inquiry, of ever expanding horizons. And isn’t the “pursuit of happiness” most likely to succeed when it’s based on such a search for reality?

dsc_0112     Bougainvillea Looking West, oil/canvas, 20×24″

Landscape Painting Force Field

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Bougainvillea Looking West

I’m still working on a landscape that I started this summer and wrote about in “Front Yard Monet”.   I know that it’s nearly done as some areas are resisting improvement, and additional maneuvers only make them slightly worse.  I tell my students that each painting is a collection of missteps and corrections, and that with every new canvas a painter learns a new way to accept defeat.  But defeat does not mean discouragement.  It means that new territories of experience and expression still await.  A perfect painting means that exploration has come to an end.

I also tell them that painting a landscape usually involves more problems than changing light, fickle weather and attacks by bugs: a plein air painter is often beset by bystanders who comment on the work in progress and share their viewpoints about their lives, religion, politics, and art.  They persist unless discouraged.  On Friday I resorted to a desperate measure to fend off three onlookers and was partially successful.

I was painting a patch of grass in the left foreground when I heard the sounds of a motor and a radio approaching.  A weather beaten man with one lone tooth in his upper jaw who wore a baseball cap, shorts and a tee shirt pushed a mower slowly toward me.  Reuben stopped to look at the painting, but didn’t turn off his radio or the motor as he told me about his attempts at painting and photography.  He had a thick accent, and what with the background noise I had trouble understanding everything he said, but managed to pick out a few of the major points.  The man said that he had several regular customers in the neighborhood and helped them with their gardens as well.  Reuben enjoyed working as him own boss in the outdoors as it gave him time to appreciate the beauty he saw everywhere around him.  A recent sunset moved him so much that he took a picture of the red and purple tinged clouds above a glowing horizon. And then Reuben knocked on the door of a nearby house, showed a befuddled stranger his picture, and pulled his victim out onto the lawn to make him look at the splendor of nature.

He had used up the memory in his phone and now carried a small digital camera to continue taking his photos.  With practice and persistence he had developed a sense of composition that allowed him to isolate the most choice elements in the landscape.  Now when he snapped a picture he framed hidden beauty in such a way that it revealed itself to his viewers.

Reuben also told me that he had financial difficulties and lived in a rented room a few blocks away, but that his life had grown so much richer now that he lived a simpler life.  I didn’t cut him off because he kept saying things about life and art that agreed with my own observations, because it would have been wrong to interrupt his joyous flow, and because the man had a huge need to unburden his thoughts to a willing  (and/or unwilling) audience.  After 20 minutes, however, I began to use a Buddhist practice of following my breaths to help me remain patient. He had begun to repeat himself, and I feared that the sun would set before Reuben finished his harangue.  Thankfully he walked on after he had taken three or four selfies with me and my landscape, and had apologized at least five time for taking up my time.

I painted a bit more after he left, but decided to go inside for a drink of water.  I remembered that I had a cigar on my dresser, a Christmas present from my daughter’s fiance’.  I took it outside with me and lit up.  Reuben returned pushing his mower just as I arrived at my easel.  He grinned and said, “I bet you’re smoking that to keep me moving on.”  I smiled and said nothing but thought, “Damn right!”

A man in a pick up truck pulled up a bit later and asked me what I was painting.  I pointed down the street to my view, and he looked at the painting on my easel.  He seemed surprised, gave me a compliment or two, told me he lived just down the block and promised to return later.  I puffed on my cigar and hoped that he would not.  He drove away, but swung back around the corner a half hour later and pulled up in his driveway two houses up the cross street.  He did not come back for a chat.  “Good cigar,” I thought.

A young woman stopped her car beside me just as I began to place a few touches on the clouds above a tree.  She asked me if I were a professional, and I said, “Yes, and I teach painting and drawing at Crealde School of Art and Valencia.”  She said, “I take classes at Valencia.  What’s your name?”  I told her and said that our department was a good place to  study.  She seemed bright and pleasant, but light was fading and it was time for me to pack up and start supper. I puffed on my cigar.  A cloud of smoke drifted in her direction, and she fled before she was engulfed.

Later that night I sent a message to my daughter on Facebook.  I told her that her boyfriend’s gift, a Quorum Shade from Nicaragua, was much appreciated.  And then I looked up cigar stores online to see if a local shop sold them.  I’m thinking about starting a series of landscapes in my neighborhood and may have to stock up.

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My Viewpoint