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This is an oil painting on hardwood panel. Most of us are aware of the pivotal and historical moment when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. On the left is John symbolically holding a water jug. On the right is the brother of Jesus, James who holds a wonderful gold crown. Most of the apostles including James believed Jesus was in fact the Messiah who would be the new King, the new leader of the Jews. The crown is symbolic of the way they were thinking.
We know that the mission and purpose of Jesus was essentially two-fold: To proclaim the inheritance provided by His Father (our Heavenly Father) for every person – specifically sonship and daughtership in the Father’s Kingdom. This inheritance was all inclusive. The second was to declare the Father’s great and abiding love for all of Humanity…His infinite mercy to every soul, regardless of status. During His short ministry before and after the babtism these were the two essential messages he spoke about over and over and often in parables.
The diagonals and cubistic imagery is there to show how so often this is misunderstood – that we have a difficult time seeing through a long history of subterfuge, even today. We need to look more deeply into our own experience and our own true feelings to see the actual reasons for Christ coming to our earth when He did. By getting beyond our prejudices we can ‘know’ Jesus in a new and vital way. It is my hope that by contemplating the painting honestly our own hearts and minds will open more to His core message of love towards all men.
Even artists who confess no particular belief in God, cannot deny moments or periods of inspiration. Inspired art however continues to be decried by the critics as something to be downplayed. The opposite of de-bunking any kind of inspiration is not painting at all until a supernatural feeling or image is conjured.
Living near the California coast I often watch surfers. They will surf set after set of mediocre waves before catching anything good. They might be out there day after day waiting for a truly good wave. They know however that they must practice on the average to be ready for those which have excellent shape and length. When an experienced surfer catches and rides really good waves it is truly wonderful to see.
It seems to be an inspired moment but perhaps I am stretching the meaning to broadly.
Being inspired means experiencing something quite beyond our normal range of awareness. We see something we never quite saw before. We are able to follow a line of nature that had eluded us, a particular hue is mixed that was unattainable before, a look or feel is imparted to a painting that goes beyond a natural ability. In between these apparent bursts of insight are often long periods of mechanically working out a composition. We follow principals, work on balance, symmetry and contrast for effect. We are like the surfer catching all those mediocre waves while trying to perfect technique.
Inspired art translates into all phases of life. In business we come up with a solution we never imagined before. It just comes to us. It seems to have been inside us all the time, but from beyond us as well. We see inspired moments in sports, in music, in carpentry, in architecture, in the way a nurse treats a patient. There is a certain joy we experience. Because it is so illusive, it is a waste of time to seek after it. All that we can do is be about our task, pay attention, concentrate, be aware. It is the process that we must enjoy…the journey.
If God, a supernatural understanding, the Muse somehow pays us a visit and expands our experience, then all the better. Regardless, inspired art comes in remarkably small portions. If we are not paying attention it might elude us time after time. If we are not busy with our craft we will of course, never notice at all. It is my feeling that even the greats like Delacroix or Picasso or Rembrandt, out of the hundreds and hundreds of completed works, count to themselves but ten or twelve they hold especially dear.
Waiting for inspiration is a little like asking the waiter for the check. I am not however one of those artists who debunk inspiration (per sey). But perhaps we should clarify the term by saying that this is something clearly beyond our normal bounds, our normal interpretation or our normal range of vision. THis is something quite beyond our current mental and emotional barriers. Inspiration comes (if it does at all) when we have hungered for quite some time for that ‘otherworldly’ experience that typically lays hidden under the rocks and trees and the scars of our emotions.
When it does come it does not come with the playing of drums. There are just subtle but beautiful insights of vision. These can often dictate a painting which is precisely why I prefer abstract painting versus anything pre-conceived. Regardless, inspiration may come or not. It may come three times a year in very small and incremental degrees. But it is these that the artist aspires to recognize. Once recognized the artist must act, or be tormented by that vision that becomes more and more veiled. It is the response, the act that is critical here.
The purpose of this short article is to convince the reader for the necessity of practice. Read the book, the Natural Way to Draw and you will get a good bit of direction on how to practice the art of drawing. Drawing or painting – we simply must be about our task. It is not good to let a week or two go idle. Paint anything. There is no endeavor that will not lead and improve your handmanship and of course that vital connection between hand and eye and mind. Those three are uniquely brought to the fore when it comes to painting. Practice so that when inspiration comes – that desired element that so illlusively lives beyond our normal experience – we will be more the ready. We will be like the gunslinger who has practiced his draw and aim and can now pull and fire with decent precision. What good is it to attain some level of ‘other-worldly’ experience if we are ultimately un-able to manifest that expression in our work through poor facility? In short, practice makes us ready for those bursts of insight that we as artists hunger for- ala Jackson Pollack. There are often long travails through the desert until we come to our oasis. I suppose this is just the way the universe operates.
It is however always the case, that the paintings tell the story best. We only need to look more carefully.
The bridge between painting and photography is becoming blurred and I think we should welcome this evolution. Photographers have become more adept at modulating common images. They can subtly overlap images, juxtapose photos, give them an appearance of movement, fade and blurr photos to the point where they barely resemble the simple, fixed photo.
This may be an attempt at abstraction, or sometimes just to see what and how an image can be bent and changed. Whereas photos naturally tend to be more incisive, more specific or more detailed, this process of abstracting an image in the dark room or now with photoshop is bringing the two disciples much closer together.
There are some painters who take photos and place them within the painting. This kind of interplay sometimes works well to enhance an image on canvas. This bridge between painting and photography will no doubt continue to be explored. The photographic image in the hands of a professional can in fact resemble a good abstract painting. This kind of creative effort is invigorating for the broad art scene in general but also opens up possibilities for the individual artist.
One of Einstein’s better quotes is that a problem cannot be resolved by the same consciousness that created it. We might have thought this ourselves but never phrased it so succinctly. It is true though, right? Our consciousness needs to change, but, then, we ask how do we accomplish that.? The intent and the endeavor are serious enough. We need this kind of resolution practically every day. The making of art however demands a certain extra twist.
A recent, small painting created for me some unusual and frankly, surprising difficulties. There was a certain pre-conceived idea, very vague, an undefined feeling that was floating around in my head. So, I started in. Two months later I became aware of what Einstein had referred to. The problems that came to the surface could not be resolved by the original vision, the original conception. A shift was necessary, but the particular shift of direction could not be ascertained except by sitting in front of this small painting in contemplation. Only in this way was I able to articulate what I was after, what i was feeling, what the painting (in its’ partial state) was saying to me, to my very deep inner experience. This is the problem in art. It is ever present because it represents our own presence, our own awareness.
TO be honest, especially with this little painting – 18 in. x 20 in. only I struggled considerably. I worked on it on and off for three months. It became a sort of meditation and in fact, spawned a couple writings having to do, of all things, with my boyhood. The shift in consciousness probably had more to do with a shift in awareness…what did this dash of yellow represent or what if I changed the hue of the clouds? What if I changed literally the color of the umbrella’s and the tilt of the man’s hand? Art makes it’s own demands and if we are compliant enough, we make the change…we follow the lead.
Wonderful things happen when children paint. Put paper and brush before them and they paint with apparent and complete happiness. It is for them just another means of expression. It is a medium that blends and naturally coordinates mental, physical and imaginitive imagery. It is a wonderful hand/eye experience for them.
When our children were very young I made a low table with a raised spool at one end. On the spool my wife and I placed a large roll of butcher paper. It came down through a metal guide and then could be pulled unto the table. When they would fill up one sheet, it was easy to tear off and then just unroll more paper for them. They would often use chalk or watercolor and so, the paper would often get quite wet – ha. We would put them out in the sun to dry. It was always so fun to see them express themselves with such bright colors, such bold dashes of line.
When children paint, we feel a certain freedom come over us, a certain exhilaration ourselves. There is no judgement. Every line and dash of color is its own expression. I always found it fascinating how one child would choose certain colors and another, very different hues to express themselves.
I feel thankful that even at my advanced age, i still fill a distinct exhilaration when I paint or draw myself. It is my favorite activity. I feel most free, most myself when I am painting or drawing in the studio. I must express gratitude toward my parents to provide the means when I was very young – it started me on the path.
There is no particular demand as an artist in switching styles. Some artists feel that switching styles is a compromise position, whereas those artists who are selling their work feel they will lose clientele by switching styles. Locking in a style for consumerism is probably good for sales but not especially good for authentic artistic expression – long term.
We can cite numerous examples on both sides of the fence, those who have stuck to one particular style and those who vary their expression without concern for keeping a consistent style. Personally I don’t like being locked in to a particular style or genre of painting. I might paint a series of drag paintings which are completely abstract and these might take me through a period of six months. Then I might decide to paint a fairly realistic still life. I find that what I learn in one will often translate into a new way of doing the other. The discoveries I make with one style will positively affect another style or way of painting. I think this is a clear advantage. Locking myself to one set style seems highly restrictive.
I appreciate the fact that someone as famous as Gerhardt Richter has been willing to change his style. He will go through distinct periods where new work is considerably different than a previous one. I find this approach refreshing.
Creating a drag painting is a distinct departure from ‘thematic’ painting. Pre-establishing a theme to a painting is a naturally restrictive process. It is planned out with sketches and follows the artist’s guidelines. A drag painting however relies heavily on chance effects. A certain effect or image can be imagined and even anticipated but with a drag painting the artist’s hand is ‘hidden’ and the result can never quite be determined. I will point out below a few drag painting methods.
A drag painting relies on a hard, flat, primed surface. A squeege presses the paint into the surface. Large and smaller squeeges are used and so, a large surface is always more effective. One of the challenges to this type of abstract painting is to keep the actual colors sharp and vibrant. In the drag effect they can sometimes become muddled when mixed together.
For myself I will often complete the initial drag painting in a day or two at most. Then after drying I might take another week or two to ‘play’ with certain effects by brush. This is done to highlight an area that needs more punch and even to tone down an area. I will also use strips of colored tissue paper which adds a layer of accent to the painting before the final coat of varnish is applied. THese several drag painting methods can yield incredibly exciting results if you are willing to give up on elements of control and allow chance to be part of the creative process.
It is not unusual to wind up with a painting that becomes extraordinarily difficult. Sometimes as artists we try something new and we get half way and get stuck. We are just not sure how to proceed – we are faced with a difficult painting. When this happens it is best to put our brushes aside and to rest on it for awhile.
After a time pull out that painting and have another look and ask yourself what is it you are trying to do? What mood, what effect?
Try to establish a basic, fundamental direction for the painting.
WHen I have a difficult painting – one that I am just not sure about, I will attempt to get one small area of the painting right. This may mean getting a particular design correct, or just the right hue or shading but get it just the way you want it. Be very satisfied with that one small part. It is surprising how a painting can develop once there is one section that is done perfectly. All the other parts can then begin to relate to that first successful area.
I don’t mean to sound like a prima donna with regard to the Making of Art, because I say that art just does not respond automatically. It is not mechanical as in drive in this many nails today, screw here and then over there. There is distinct gestation in the general process… periods where forms and ideas are considered and weighed. What is their particular significance? Do they relate at all to other influences that have recently been considered ? I repeat though, I am no prima donna. This should be understood as a very natural process in making art. We have moved beyond commercializing. Let the material keep stacking up, row upon row. Keep categorizing the paintings. Keep track, or try to. Follow some pattern. But in all that be sensitive to the need to isolate and experience a certain ‘coming together’ of influences. Making art…how to be true, how to be (that ambiguous word), authentic ? There it is. I have said it plainly enough. You can’t just barge in and steal the key. There has to be consideration, some reflection, understanding of the process required, a golden edge that in the mind’s eye is retained…all of this gets broiled, as they say, in the cauldrons of each and every individual soul. The heat thoroughly brings them irrevocably together. Forms merge whether they want to or not. They combine and that combination identifies a new reality, a new moment. This is the stuff of art.
It is the stuff of life. The artist does the consideration, does the reflection and the broiling together of the many components. It all gets processed but is rarely completely understood. HOw could there be complete understanding. The subjects and forms are too complex. Our responses are just suggestions that add to the many ripples that now arc across the universe. We are trying to just comprehend our small part. We hope that we tie on to something more universal, more dynamic, more ‘authentic’ to the experience. This kind of thing requires meditation but what I like to call, just typical gestation – the process of sitting on a concept or idea and letting it develop as it needs to.