What Painters Think About

Folks have asked me what I think about while I’m working on a painting.  If it’s a funny or sarcastic project, they assume that I’m cackling nonstop as I mix colors and apply brushstrokes.  Some seem unaware that canvases can take hundreds of hours to complete, and that no one maintains the same mental state longer than a few seconds.

A children’s counselor once told me that artists are insane while they make their art.  I failed to convince her that I’m lucid while working, and that no one (Van Gogh included) could make a painting work if he or she didn’t make thousands of clear-headed decisions.  I also told the counselor that she might be mistaking the nonverbal thought patterns that arise in painters’ minds for signs of insanity.  The inner monologue sometimes falls away as we work.  Instinct and feeling take over…Time seems to disappear, and painting becomes more like prayer or meditation.

Below is a recreation of my thoughts while painting.  It’s not a transcription, of course, but may give readers an inkling of what I think about before I hit the sweet spot of inner silence.

 

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Mexican Bull (oil/canvas)

Maybe I can finish this today.  No, can’t work too long.  Got to get groceries and pay some bills.  That color’s garish…No wait–It’s better than what I wanted…What the hell was that?  Sounded like a five hundred pound squirrel landed on the roof…maybe a magnolia pod.  Did I dream about that chewing sound in the attic last night, or have the rats returned?

 

DSC_0298 (2)Quilt (oil/canvas, 2018)

Oh crap.  This looks like Paul Klee.  Who am I ripping off besides him?  Hello Kandinsky.  Hello Max Beckman.  Steal from the best, leave the rest…Jesus, the left side looks like a greeting card.  Got to mess that up.  I’ll sour those colors and add a black line…Better, but still too pretty.  Might as well add bunnies and flowers.  Picasso said you have to destroy something if it looks too good too early in a painting…Asshole…I wonder if artists have to be assholes to become famous?  I’m an asshole…When will my ship come in?

A truck drives by with a dog hanging half way out the window.  It barks at regular intervals as it progresses down the street, and the noise fades and shifts key as it moves farther away.

Doppler Dog strikes again…I wonder if we should get a dog.  No time right now to take care of a dog…Hmm…that passage looks like a dog’s tail…Or is that a toe?  Meh.  It’s a blob of paint.  Ugly blob…Scrape it off…My shoulder hurts.  There goes the knee.  Is it hot in here?  Maybe I should get up and turn on the fan, stretch, but first…Well that looks better, but now I have to change five things to compensate…Patience, man, patience.

 

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Lake Louisa (oil on canvas)

Helen thinks that I’m a nut job, and that Friday student thinks I’m Donald Trump’s twin…”Who am I anyway?  Am I just my resume’?”   What was that song I heard yesterday…I’ve heard it before…Don’t have the cd, but the singer’s name is…Senility strikes again…I’ll think of it later, but her last name started with a P.  Penn…Penwright…Peyroux?  

I get up to look at what I’ve done, move that painting off the easel and stand it against a wall.

Did I just make everything worse?  Man, the middle needs a highlight, and those colors on the right look too mucky now.  When did I begin to lose all my talent…what little there is…Oh, come on now…it always looks bad half way through…maybe if I pop that red, palette knife a little white, glaze a purple over that mess and…

Judy knocks on the door to the studio and invites me to join her on a walk.  We head up Chilean Drive and talk about an upcoming visit from our daughter, the folks who used to live in the house at the corner, and the north wind that’s bringing another cold front.

When I get back my mind is clearer, and I look at the painting with fresh eyes.

It almost looks done!  When did that happen?  Time to spray for elves…Now I’ll just accent that scrabbly field of yellow, twist a red line along that edge…Might be done…Should I sign it?  I hate signing a painting…You get close and a signature screws everything up…An act of hubris and the gods of painting smite me…Can’t think of anything more to do on this one, and it’s good enough…for now…Ah, the familiar feeling of partial defeat…But that other painting in the corner is calling me…Maybe that one’ll turn out better…Wait a minute!  I can fix this one if I…maybe…That’s better…hmmm…

(Silence.)

 

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Happy Paintings for Well-Adjusted People

I’m due to give a power point presentation at an opening for a show at Daytona State College on March 29th.  I’m going to try to explain the history of some of my work, the influences, etc.  Here’s a cut down version of what I have so far.

My grandfather told stories about his boyhood in Dayton, Ohio, how he saw the Wright brothers flying their airplanes over the church steeples and department stores, how he got a job mucking out shops downtown after the 1913 flood inundated half the city. His baby sister, my great aunt Margaret told jokes, as did my great uncle Norby. They were at their best at funerals. If anyone looked a bit too glum, they’d make a quip and lighten the mood. So, I grew up on stories and jokes.

When I got to grad school, my professors expected serious artists to do three things: paint big; use thick paint; make it ugly. Bigness, thickness, and ugliness were signs of a desperate need to communicate the raw essence of one’s soul. At the time I painted small and thin, but my still life objects were ugly enough to earn me a partial pass. I began to paint still lives that were little tableaus. I arranged figurines, toys, posters into set ups that told odd tales.

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Penelope, Oil/Canvas, 1989

Years later, I grew desperately tired of painting still lives and began a series of narrative paintings with figures and interiors created from memory and imagination. Stanley Spencer, Balthus, and Philip Evergood were sources of inspiration. I painted stories about everyday life and my personal history. “Every Day” is a portrayal of the rituals of married life, of intimacy that eventually becomes mundane.

Picture 004

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Every Day, Oil/Canvas, 2000

I took up another subject: blue collar life. Third Shift is the story of a man who comes home early in the morning from work. His wife’s schedule opposes his. All he wants to do is to collapse, but she has other things in mind. The Night Factory is a bit of working class surreality. The men and women build things even in their dreams.

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Third Shift (top), The Night Factory (bottom).

I began to think about combining words and images to tell jokes and farces.

The main sources for the paintings in the show are 19th century portraits and illustrations. I’m drawn to the stiff formality of the former, and the exaggerated drama and sentimentality of the latter. I enjoy undercutting them by making ironic juxtapositions and hinting at unfortunate back stories. Paintings by Magritte and collages by Max Ernst and Hannah Hoch are lurking in the back of my mind when I work on these pieces.

 

Top left:  Hannah Hoch.  Bottom left:  Rene Magritte’s Premonition.                                           Right:  Max Ernst collage.

Sometimes the words are at war with the image (what does it all mean anyway?). Sometimes the joke is on me when I devote long hours to craft an image that is nothing more than a punch line for a stupid joke based on a pun…all that effort and technical knowledge to create something pointless and silly…Sometimes I create open-ended narratives. I like to short circuit a story by using vague texts that hint at multiple plots. My fables are open-ended, and outcomes are only suggested. The picture becomes something more than an illustration if the meaning isn’t fixed.

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Inseparable, Acrylic on Board and Canvas, 2018

 

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

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

Front Yard Monet

I set up my easel in the front yard and start to work on the second layer of a landscape.  The first layer was painted wet into wet to block in basic color shapes and looks fairly crude.   My view is straight down the street, and I’m painting it as is, so I’m confused for a second when a pick-up stops at the curb and the driver, a gaunt man with a deep tan and sweat running down his face, leans over toward me and asks, “Whatcha paintin’?”  I point to the canvas, then point up the street and say, “That.”  “Oh,” he replies with a slightly confused look on his face.  He pulls away and I return to work.

The sky is giving me some trouble:  cumulus clouds roll by and constantly change shape.  I’m forced to adapt the shapes and colors of one cloud to fit the contours of a cloud that passed by a half hour ago.  There are overlapping bushes and trees in a distant yard, and they look like a blurry lump on my canvas.  I’ve got to find a way to use different marks and colors to separate them out, but my efforts are only partly successful at this point.  The road feels a little too narrow when I look at the painting.  I compare its width to the yard next to it and realize that I’ve shortchanged the road and made the yard too wide.

An attractive young woman walks up the road toward me.  She’s wearing a tight blouse and short shorts.  She notices me working at my easel and looks at me intently for a brief moment.  I wait in the fond hope that she will stop and inspect my progress, but she pulls out her phone as she passes by and begins to talk and giggle.  My ego rapidly deflates, and I feel like I’m intruding on a private conversation.  My realization that I am mostly invisible to women under the age of 45 is confirmed once again.

Sweat is starting to soak through my shirt, and gnats and one very persistent mosquito are buzzing around my nose.  I close my mouth and swat the air in front of my face.  I’ve inhaled a bug once before, and am not in the mood to repeat my performance of coughing, choking,  and attempting to hack up an insect stuck to the back of my throat.  A sudden breeze comes up and I notice that some of the cumulus clouds in the west are a darker gray.  It might rain.

Two boys ride by on bicycles.  They’re ten or eleven.  One looks back at me and then says to the other, “Did you see that?  I could never paint like that.”  The other says very loudly for my benefit, “He better not paint me.”

I recognize his voice.  He’s the fat little prick who taunted me and my wife when we were out for a walk a few months ago.  We were taking our time heading home, and the little brat sped by with his buddies on their bikes.  He waited till he was out of reach before he taunted, “I bet you had good time in bed last night.”  He apparently took me for an impotent old geezer because of my white hair and slow gait.  I eventually thought of a reply that wouldn’t upset my wife too much and yelled, “Aren’t you a lovely young man!”  He thought a bit as he circled on his bike one block away from me and answered, “At least I don’t have to use Viagra!”  I knew better than to inquire if he’d ever had a boner.

The boys turn a corner and disappear, and I go back to painting muttering curses at the little bastard while envisioning the satisfaction I would get from clotheslining him off his bike if he passed by again.

The clouds clear and the bugs go away when the heat returns, and I make some good progress on some trees in the far background.  I’m beginning to enjoy a sense of peace that I sometimes get while painting outside.  I get the feeling that I’m part of something bigger than myself, that I’m participating in the general flow of life around me.

But my happier mood is broken when the same two boys appear at the end of the street and start to come toward me on their bikes.  I grimly continue painting as fatso comes nearer.  I can tell that he’s going to say something again, and he does:  “Hey Mister, you better not paint me,” he warns.  He glides by with an expectant look on his face as if he hopes that he can goad me into a reaction.  I simply stare at him, and his smug attitude falters a bit.

I paint for another hour before going inside to drink a beer, talk to my wife and start supper.  It’s been a pretty good painting session–I’ve made reasonable progress.  I know that it’ll take another three or four layers before I get close to the finish, but paintings grow like children.  They mature in their own time, and it helps to be patient.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Results

The Results

An acrylic painting with a faux sci-fi theme:  teleportation through time.  A Victorian girl is plucked from her own place and time and arrives very much against her will in a modern lab.

Text:  They focused on the child.  She was the key to understanding the results of their experiment, the flaws in its design.  Ms. Roberts agreed to act as the decoy.

Thought bubble:  Where’s the needle?  She must not escape!