Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Reference And The Subject

I took a couple new mixed media paintings down to the gallery this last week. One of them turned out to be kind of a sequel to one I finished last winter. The first painting is called The Grotto, and was based on a small cave in the Santa Monica mountains west of Malibu:

The Grotto 22x30 $600
Ink & Colored Pencil on Paper

And this is the new painting:

The Journey 22x30 SOLD
Ink & Colored Pencil on Paper

It's funny, all the things that go through my mind when I'm painting. Sometimes I'm wondering if I'm going to muck it up in the next minute, to make some mistake I won't be able to correct. Other times I'll be wondering what people will think of it. But the more I paint, the less time I'm spending worrying about it. In fact every now and then I'll be patting myself on my back for any part of it that's going well. I figure it's safe to compliment myself once in a while; reality always wins in the end. As a work gets close to being done, I'll start wondering how it fits into my small body of work, whether it's going to be a failed experiment, where my ambition overreached my skills, or whether it might turn out to be a high spot, a piece where everything works and the whole thing comes alive with its own energy. Not that I have anything against failed experiments, I consider them to be the most important work I'm doing right now, trying to do things I don't know how to do yet. In every one of them I learn new things, both things to do and things not to do. And when you know you're working on a piece that "isn't going anywhere", you have so much more freedom to play with new ways of holding the brush, or putting the color down. In fact, I'm strongly feeling the need to sit down and do nothing but make brush marks.

What I really enjoy, however, is when I'm not thinking about anything but the marks that the brush or pencil is making, the colors that I'm mixing and putting down, the wetness and texture of the paint and how it's going onto the surface—smoothly, or with effort.

I used to spend too much of my painting time focusing on the reference photo or object I was painting from; I actually thought that if my entire focus was on the subject, if I was absorbing it through all my senses, that a perfect copy of it would magically appear on the painting surface. Sort of like the Think Method from "The Music Man". I was blurring the line between the reference and the subject—the reference being outside the painting and the subject being in it. I notice that I seem to be shifting more of my attention to the painting instead. I'm beginning to think more of the design that's appearing, what the overall pattern is, and if there's anything I can change or add—or remove—to make the pattern stronger. I'm looking for opportunities for visual texture with either stroke marks or color changes. I'm looking at the colors already on the surface, how they relate to each other, and if additional colors would make the painting richer, or just more complicated. I'm looking for where the pure hues are, and where the neutrals are. I'm thinking less of what the colors were in the original subject, and more of what they need to be in the painting, in order for it to work. These are all things that I've read about for years, from the many sources that say how important they are. But more and more, I'm feeling them as I'm painting.

I got another great painting video from the library, one by Stephen Quiller. He shows several examples of combining watercolor and gouache, in small studies and in a plein air color study and the studio painting done from it. He mentions as he begins the studio work that he doesn't want to copy the color study, he wants to create something new, based on it. Those words are really sticking with me.