Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Thank you, David Hockney

I started visiting the David Hockney website earlier this year while I was working on my dachshund paintings. I remembered he had done a book of paintings of his two dachshunds, and I googled and found his official website. I had become a fan of his years before when I was living in Southern California and first saw his strongly graphic and brilliantly colored paintings of the hills and canyons west of LA. I'm sorry now (duh) that I never saw any of his shows while I lived down there, but that was back in the days when I was afraid to go into art galleries. I think he's a brilliant artist and he's really made me think—in ways that find lots of blank spots in my brain—about what it means to create two-dimensional images of three-dimensional space. I gather from my reading that that's what cubism was all about, but as much as I love Nude Descending A Staircase, I don't get the sense of space from cubism that I do from Hockney's work. I think that to actually see what's in front of you and be able to analyze the differences between what it looks like and what it actually is, and then to convey that sense of direction and implicit motion in the painting, has got to be the most difficult thing a visual artist can do. I've been trying to capture an emotional sense in my paintings, but he gets not only the emotion but the feeling that your mind is really there inside the scene. It constantly boggles my mind that he was able to ask all the questions he must have had to ask in order to create those paintings of his interiors, and especially of LA and the iconic drives around it, like Mulholland Drive.

Anyway, I discovered to my great delight that since 2004 he's been making hundreds of paintings of his native Yorkshire countryside in the UK, and has made available on his website several slideshows of plein air sessions that I watched over and over for days on end. I really love how his paintings embrace all the trees and small plants—down to the hedgerows and roadside weeds—of the countryside, and the individual attention he gives to every single plant. Since I'm a complete sucker for the plant kingdom and good landscape paintings, nothing could make me happier than seeing one of my favorite artists take this particular journey.

I went back to his website last week and found a DVD for sale, David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, that focused on his Yorkshire work, and I ordered it. It arrived yesterday and I spent the evening watching the almost two hours of material. It's great, really great. You get to watch him set up, get his paints out, make his initial sketches and go to work on them, in the wind, in the cold, while the light changes and all the colors shift, while people come by and stop to watch—or ask him if he wants to come paint the wall in their pub. And he talks about the work, he answers questions and asks some, too. Several of his friends and contemporaries add interesting commentary. I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it, but my favorite scenes are of him painting, and of him talking about how he went around for months with sketchbooks, drawing the individual species along the roadside, learning each one. His passion for his work just makes me feel that much more committed to the absolute necessity of painting as a way of life.

This morning while I was warming up in my studio I realized how much he is inspiring me. First, to focus on the images I feel a strong connection with, even if they don't look like conventional painting scenes. And second, not to be afraid to paint them even if they seem complicated or too detailed. Watching him paint shows me it is possible to pull out and simplify the few forms and lines that comprise the important elements of a scene in a way that conveys all of their emotional weight and visual textures. And third, that this year I need to start getting out into my garden to start drawing and sketching my beautiful plants, even though my garden as a whole is still in its infancy and not the paintable paradise I hope it will be in a few more years. I want to make a sketchbook like his. That's my goal for next year.

There's one other thing I want to mention that I really love about his paintings—the way he paints roads. He shows a road as what it really is: not an object, but an experience. It's the experience of driving through a place, of winding this way and that, going up over hills and down the other side, seeing different patterns and colors on each side. I love driving slow along the local narrow country roads—when I'm not getting tailgated—and luxuriating in the visual riches everywhere you look—fields of wildflowers, tall stands of firs and little Christmas trees in overgrown weeds, cows of many colors, dogs wandering, and cats hunting moles. I love to see the small differences in the plants from one month to the next, the changes of colors as growth and death leapfrog each other through time.

You can also find this DVD for sale on Amazon. Now that I've discovered him again, I really hope he keeps making more slideshows and videos. And more paintings, of course.

Cold-weather time is studio time!

Flying Kimonos

When the garden went to sleep with the first frosts, I was pretty darn ready to hang up my garden gloves and get back into the studio. I was also ready to try something new. I'd been buying printed origami paper over the summer when I came across it, and one day I picked up an awful old leaf painting on a small canvas, and started collaging on top of it. My first thought was to recreate the leaf shapes against a contrasting background, and when I finished that it didn't look anything like leaves. After looking at it for a couple days I decided the shapes really looked like flapping kimonos. I went on the web and found some images of Japanese doll faces, and found ones of both a young girl and an old woman, and added them. After that I added some very un-authentic (but fun) streamers along with some clouds, and finished it up by painting on top of the background to separate it more from the design. It's no work of art, but it was a really fun change.

Clifton Park Woods

Just last week I was rummaging through the local Goodwill store and came across a beautifully carved and painted wooden frame with just a few small nicks in it. I thought about it for a minute and snapped it up. I brought it home and took out the botanical print that was in it and cleaned the old paper off the back. I played a bit with a color scheme that would look good in it and decided on a fall scene that I photographed in central New York in early October and had been wanting to paint. I worked on it for a couple days and was really pleased with how it looked in the frame.

So far, so good. I have a small stack of fall scenes I'll be working on for the next several weeks. And I'll be sneaking out on nice days to whisper encouragement to the buds on my hellebores, and try to talk my two forsythias into giving me some flowers this next year. In a few hours it's the winter solstice, and knowing that the days will begin to lengthen soon does a lot to keep me looking forward to the signs of growth that are starting even now. Nature may look asleep, but she's really busy dreaming!