08 April 2014

Blank canvas, blank mind

How people ever get started on anything is a mystery. Especially ... starting a painting.

I'm no painter, despite a certain amount of exposure to painting classes and learning about colour mixing. In fact, I watch people painting and wonder how they know what to do - and where to start. 

Painting from observation is one thing - the subject is in front of you. If you know what you're doing, you'll know about underpainting and/or about what colours to put on first, and little things like how to load up the brush and how fluid the paint should be, and how to get tidy edges. Maybe you've learned this by trial and error (and maybe that's what I could be doing too), or maybe you had good instruction along the way.

Painting abstracts, or even painting for the sake of painting - or for the sake of improving technique - is quite another thing (for me anyway) when it comes to starting (and continuing). The nearest I've come is with the Colour Dictionary -
hundreds of pages of words covered over with freshly-mixed colours, one page at a time. The project made me happier about mixing colours, and the Problem Of The Blank Canvas wasn't an issue ... but has it led to a desire to do more painting, to play with liquid colours (or even solid colours: pencils or fabric) - no, not really ... and I wonder why not. 

Possibly what happens with painting is the same as what happens with other kinds of making - you devote yourself to Doing It, so that when you get stuck in, the doing brings to mind other paintings that you could do ... and when you finish one painting, there's something else to start on, as a natural progression. Either you're happy with what you've done (or intrigued with what you could do next) and it becomes a series of some sort, or you're not, so you start on an entirely different tack - doing the first painting has revealed what you need to be doing differently.

I feel I don't have good "intuition" with paint - and that's probably because I simply haven't done enough of it. No, not the 10,000 hours required to be excellent ... I think, on the basis of persevering with drawing, a feeling of competence arrives around the 150 hours mark. That's half an hour a day for just under a year: 300 days of squeezing out enough paint to last for those few minutes of painting ... set the timer, why not, and Just Do It ... take it forward, have a conversation with what's happening on the canvas, let it tell you what to do next - and paint it over, next day, if you want. 

Perhaps that experimental (experiential?) canvas will have as many layers of paint as there are pages in the Colour Dictionary. Connie mentioned Flora Bowley's Brave Intuitive Painting; a glance at the video on her site gives a few ideas about how to start...

The first step is the hardest: making the first choices. Which colour(s) ... which brush ... this is when random chance is useful: writing notes on slips of paper, putting them in jars, and pulling out "a colour" and "a brush" ... this could be an easy way to get past this brick wall. Another jar could have trigger-words, or even scraps of paper with sections of images, to help with the getting-going. Each one of these is a nudge forward, a way of borrowing momentum...

Another way of making a start is with an assignment, for instance, these two:
  1. The Mark: Repetition, Unity with Variation. Create a non objective painting by repeating a brushstroke (mark) all over. Create an area of interest by adjusting color and or value in an area of the painting. Artists: Alma Thomas, Joan Mitchell, Brice Marden, Jack Tworkov.
  2. The Grid:  Pattern, Variety, Emphasis. Create an asymmetrical composition based on an irregular grid. Color: Limited to a pair of complementary colors plus the use of white. Use a range of values. Look at Sean Scully, Paul Klee, Mondrian, West African Kente Cloth.

Broken into small steps, into attractive possibilities, this seems like it could be interesting and dare I say fun. I'll leave it a few days to decide whether to start...

Another thought -- why do people who could be happily drawing, or collaging (paper or fabric), or stitching, or making books or pots or clothing ... why, with this sort of creative expression happily to hand, do they set out to do something unknown, something difficult, something they risk never being satisfied with? What are they trying to prove, who are they trying to impress... Might it not be a better use of time to become more skilled in something that's less of a challenge?


Birdie said...

Given the post I assume that last question is for yourself?!

I begin each painting with no idea of what I will paint or how I will paint it. Or even if I can do it. That's the way I like it.

Textiles are a hobby for me and my process is different, more plans, it's easier really, that's why it's a hobby.

Painting though, that demands everything of me, my curiosity, my intelligence, my intuition, my knowledge, my experience and my willingness to takes risks, not to mention my creativity, emotions and love of colour.

And that I think is why I do things I don't know if I can do. Because nothing else is as satisfying as a task which engages every aspect of my being.

Maybe that's why everyone takes on such challenges?

Hello btw :)

Connie Rose said...

Excellent post! Thanks for Flora's video, I hadn't seen it before.

Beginning is difficult for me, too, and I feel flummoxed usually before I even begin.

I love what Birdie had to say, and perhaps it's a similar thing for me as well ~ once I get good enough at something, art quilting for instance, then it's time to move on to something else. I do think it's about the urge to branch out, try new things, challenge oneself. Surely you can't consider yourself not also doing this -- look at all the media you're constantly switching amongst.

Frequently I've disliked that I'm virtually always a beginner with a specific medium, and wish I had a lifetime body of work in one arena like so many other fantastic artists, in every medium. Alas, that's never been my way. It's always been about moving on, new challenges, learning new skills, etc., even though that's been very difficult at times.

In every facet of life, though, I've started over so many times that I've begun to think of this as my karmic path in everything. To begin anew.

Thanks again for the great post!

Charlton Stitcher said...

I come to your thought-making comments via Connie's blog - which I've followed with great interest for some time now.

As to starting something new and something I couldn't do, when I retired almost 7 years ago, I took up textile art after very little specific previous experience but with a great deal of enthusiasm and a belief that given time I might be able to 'do it'. So perhaps that's some sort of answer to your question of why people start completely new things - a certain level of faith, maybe blind and misguided, but nevertheless faith, in themselves and their abilities.

Also, there was for me at that stage in my life, a wish to start something new and enthralling to give my life focus after giving up a very fulfilling job. I've discovered through this that staring anew can be exciting as well as intimidating. But it was more than time-filling.

All my adult life I'd told myself that, when I had time, I would go back intensively to the 'arty stuff' that I'd parked in my early 20s to earn a living. For me then, this new start was the result of a promise to myself that I knew I had to keep.

Returning to it has given me enormous enjoyment and introduced me to good friends, both here and in the 'real' world. What more could I want?