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Waiting for Inspiration

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.

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How to look at Abstract Art

    How to look a abstract is like explaining to someone how to listen to jazz, or what to appreciate in modern dance.  Sometimes I am asked to explain a painting.  The intent here is understandable, assuming that something can be better or more fully appreciated with some background information.  Some abstract paintings will have subjects or forms that are vaguely representative – objects can be identified.  This is satisfying to the brain, to our emotions.  Just prior to the advent of abstract painting, the impressionists informed the public that the forms they were used to seeing were actually made up of fragments, particles of light, a myriad of reflections.  It took awhile for the public to respond to this new way of seeing nature, of viewing form.

   When there are no references – when nothing is recognizable we are mentally and emotionally placed in a very different orientation.  How to look at an abstract painting has very much to do with releasing of preconceptions.   By accepting the images as they are, without judgement allows the viewer to comprehend the message of the painting.  An abstract painting is rarely intended to impart some sense of profoundness.  A relaxed and receptive viewer however may discover the ‘message’ the artist was attempting to manifest.  More often the viewer discovers something that resonates for them alone.  Each viewer may see something entirely different and even different from what the artist had intended to convey.  This is the ultimate benefit to abstract and especially non-objective painting.

   As a rule non-objective painting especially is rarely planned out completely.  There may be sketches, there may be patterns that have been worked out and sometimes there is a distinct feeling an artist is hoping to convey.  Once the painting begins other forces come to play.  These forces operate beyond any original conceptions or design.  One of the purposes of abstract painting is to allow these inherent and internal forces to be seen.  One element that is put down and painted tends to demand a sympathetic painterly response.  This goes on and on as the painting is developed.   When a viewer can detect these relationships and even to imagine how the painting developed is what makes viewing abstract art so exciting.  It goes beyond or under reality.  We like to say it comes from the sub-conscious, at least there is a synergy between the conscious original idea and the sub-conscious that is brought forward.  The artist allows the two elements to work together.  Next time you look at an abstract or non-objective painting, ask yourself how you feel about the painting.  How does the painting make you feel?  What passages in the painting appeal to you ? Internally do you feel a connection to the piece?  The effort to make sense of this type of painting is a waste of effort, any more than trying to make sense of good jazz.  Just enjoy the piece as it is.  Let it speak to you on its own terms.  

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I occasionally talk with beginner painters, some students who cannot seem to start a painting.  How to start a painting is in my view an actual process.  There is the inevitable fear of getting a good start which some students cannot deny.   It may also be the lack of legitimate idea or concept.  Following a particular process can be very helpful.

In almost every case I first prepare the canvas or panel before there is even an idea in mind.  Because I used primed panel this is a fairly tedious process of buying, cutting, priming and then installing struts but regardless of the material, prepare your surface.  Have it fully ready.  This would include your brushes, the oil paints, the thinner or medium, rags, the pallette.   Have it mounted on an easel.  In other words, be completely ready.  This is the first step in the process.

As they say, ‘sleep on it’.   Think about that white canvas and imagine what might be painted.  It is not unusual to dream about the painting.  One time I had a painting in mind and I had it fairly worked in conceptually.  I even had made some drawings.  I was going to start it the very next morning.  That night I had a dream and woke up with a completely different idea.  While it was still fresh in my mind I went immediately out to the studio and began to paint from my memory of the dream’s image.  I painted solid for six hours to get it down accurately.  If the panel or canvas had not been prepared I would have missed the opportunity – that spontaneous burst of insight which artists so desire to experience.

Once the panel or canvas is ready, when all the mateials are ready I often suggest preliminary sketches.  The beauty of sketches on paper is that they are only sketches – you are not locked in.  Keep sketching until something really resonates for you.  When it does I will often transfer this loosely on the canvas with graphite pencil or even with a small brush dipped in thinned umber.  It is remarkable how drawing with a small brush can bring the idea alive on the canvas.  Keep looking at it.  Come back to it the next day…keep studying it and eventually the moment to begin painting will arrive.

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Starting a drag painting in oil



From previous articles I have tried to describe the process of starting a drag painting.  Without some motivation, some method even – a painting will sit dormant within one’s psyche, unmanifested.  I have also mentioned in the past that there is no need for some grand theme, some profound thought or something that resembles symbolism.  These certainly will come, for example we can see symbolism in so many things.  Today at the stop light the young man behind me took out and lit a cigarette while we waited in traffic.  There was an edge to him, a certain nervousness as he tapped and popped out a cig., then lit.  There was a furtive look in his eyes as if he was not quite sure how this day would turn out – for the better or for the worse.  When the light turned green I pulled forward to make the first left as he drove by to the side in his black, noisy’ guys truck’ – vroom.  Right there is a lot of symbolism that I might interpret…all kinds of layers having to do with ‘if there is true peace in our lives and what might be the right path?..’  Or just the eagerness of youth, the searching and even the bravery of becoming a man or woman – expressing themselves, discovering their own unique motivations. All kinds of imagery and symbolism.02

But that is not the stuff paintings should be made of.  It tends to appear false, plastic and disassociated.  It is the kind of intention that stops too many artists from actually painting.  I think too often we are straining to paint something significant.  IF we do not paint then we are not truly artists.  The process must be much more intuitive and inspired  not from external influences but by internal responses.  These responses come often in the most slight bits of information, small visual ticks, short, brief hints that sometimes appear only as feelings or sentiments but portend much larger contexts.  We need to respond to these as authentically as we can.  It may only begin with just a very small brushstroke.  The thing that fascinates me about drag painting is that the brushstroke is then dragged off by a small plastic squeege.  The plywood then shows through and there is a distinct accidental quality to the two processes – first the brush applying the pigment and then the squeege dragging most of it off, indenting into the pores of the wood.

Inevitably, if you will just get it started, the motivation to work more will tend to rise up if we can keep from being distracted.  A very large part of being an artist resides in his or her ability to block out distractions – both mental and outside of us.  It might be like playing in a concert as a musician.  The same concentration is required and more so because something is being created that is completely reliant on an organic response and then transmuted to a physical response by the artist’s hand.  We are indebted first to the impressionists who declared that what was before them, without contrivance was quite adequately beautiful.  They created their beautifully intuitive paintings with honesty, trying to be authentic to the impression.   In a similar way, so do abstract artists, only they are transmuting something honestly from an inner source.  THese inner sources often just unfold in small windows.  We open one and then discover another, and then another.  It is a fairly natural process which sometimes feels quite magical.  The key is allowing yourself time to open that very first window – that small dab of impression as when a child makes an arc in the wet sand.    Because of its inherent accidental qualities, drag painting  is an excellent way to begin to paint abstractly.  By starting a drag painting in oil you will be surprised at the good results.

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What is Abstract Art

What is abstract art is my second article on understanding abstraction.  I was listening to an interview last night of Gerhardt Richter.  Though the interviewer’s questions were remarkably insipid, his replies were insightful.  There was the distinction made between expression and impression in abstract art – two very distinct processes.  The artist is attempting to express something he or she feels internally.  With expression there  is volition required, a physical effort, planning and execution.  Impression implies an imprint such as what a viewer might receive when looking on a painting.   There is no effort, except for the willingness to absorb the message.

Before however the viewer has a look and when the painting is still in the studio there is the active back and forth between expression and impression.  The artist makes a move, creates and applies and then must stand back to get the impression.  Sometimes the question is asked, ‘Is this what I had in mind, or Is this where I want to be going?’  Richter, who does not believe there is a God stated that he uses his art as a means of discovery, of finding truth, of searching out another dimension of consciousness.  The expression and the impression is a constant and active process, back and forth means to develop an abstract painting.

Because the source is not from natural surroundings ( not of what we see around us) DSC02559 the artistic expression comes in large part from the sub-conscious.  It is certainly a co-mingling of the aggregate of our experiences interpreted through our sub-conscious.  This is why we are attracted to abstract interpretations even when there is nothing naturally recognizable.  If we are to understand ‘what is abstract art’, we need to grasp the source.  The source is that vast reservoir which we all have of inner responses, memories and feelings.  These are stored up in our psyche.  An abstract artist over time develops a sensitivity to these inner resources by overcoming or taming exterior or outward impressions – that is, one gains ascendancy over the other.  This opens up enormous opportunities for expression.

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Fear of Abstraction

Fear of abstraction stops a lot of good artists in their tracks.  Certainly understandable.  We were taught to view our art through the eyes of realism.  Imagine a famous pop artist  who gets on stage and begins to play a piece he has never played before.  His band is expected to follow along.  This kind of thing doesn’t happen does it?  Jazz however, is an exception and jazz can be brilliant. It takes a brave soul to play real jazz. This brief article will explore how to overcome this fear of painting abstracts in oil.

Where does the fear come from – this great hesitation to paint in abstraction?   Children have no problem with this, do they?  We admire their lovely free-form shapes, wild swirls, beautiful colors merging with each other.  Then something switches in our brains about the age of twelve or so.  Maybe it comes from our education system or maybe it is just a natural progression.  We start happily with finger paints and then, in adolescence  if we can’t paint a decent human figure or a discernable tree we are considered un-artistic.  Usually we give it up.

After that it is a difficult climb.   It is a slow process of undoing our brain synapses so we can envision an abstract piece.    How do we paint something we can’t see?  How do we paint un-reality?   For me I just kept painting and experimenting and I found over the years there was this need to exxagerate a color or shape.  It felt better and even more natural.  I began to read  the psychologist Jung and then Tolle.  I read a book by Gerhardt Richter.  In general I began to read more.  I was discovering the inner world that they spoke of.  It was for me like pulling away a long drapery of gauze and I saw behind it.  I began to experience Jung’s sub-conscious and what Tolle called the awareness of Presence.  I actually found myself becoming more aware – not only of the shapes and forms in my natural surroundings but also more aware of my own, unique inner experience.

I bought myself new canvas and more paint and in 2009 began to paint abstracts.  I was no longer painting what I could see externally.  I was now painting what I was experiencing internally.  I was painting a feeling, an emotion.  Sometimes I felt I was painting in response to something I had dreamed.   Remarkably I discovered that a painting could in fact develop on its own – it could itself dictate the next shape, the next color.  After that discovery whatever residual fear I had seemed to vanish.  It seemed I was more a facilitator than the creator.  I felt very connected to (I guess I should say), the greater Universe.  It felt like I was working out some solution when I painted abstracts.  I felt like I was a vehicle to manifest something that was very deep within my psyche.  This became enormously invigorating for me.

I must confess this was not an easy process and it took awhile.  I was sixty-one.  All my life I had essentially painted realistic forms.  There were small ventures here and there, experiments that hinted towards abstraction but the breakthrough for me was dramatic.  I am a believer in painting abstractions.  I think it should be taught in art schools right next to life drawing.   Any semblance of fear or trepidation could progressively  be canceled.  The world of music, of dance, of sound, of prose could be greatly expanded.  This type of art can be transformative.   It can help us better understand our own consciousness.  If we can understand our own inner presence, our real nature than we become more alive.   Abstract art can definitely foster this kind of discovery and bring forth a very personal and transformative creative experience.DSC02543.JPG

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Techniques of oil painting #3

This is a brief article on developing an abstract painting.   Sometimes I find it useful to work on a sketch first.  This sketch can be brief, in fact it is better left brief.  The intention of the sketch is to put down the essential concept in mind for the painting.  The sketch of course will be small compared to the painting your are planning.   Of course for drag paintings I rarely use a sketch but I will think through the proposed colors and I will write these down.  It helps me to write down the colors for any painting I am proposing, as a general guide.

There are times when a painting begins and then as it develops starts to falter.  Fortunately with oils you can come back the next day and begin again, making reparations where necessary.  This week I began an abstract composition (not a drag painting) and though I was pleased with the upper half, the lower half did not convey my intentions.  I had painted it reasonably close to the sketch but it was not translating unto the canvas.  This sometimes happens.  I studied it for quite some time but eventually elected to wipe out the bottom of the painting with paint thinner and a rag.  I left the upper section intact.  I will let it dry now and renew painting the bottom later.  Will this detract from the initial energy of the painting, the initial force of it or will the finished piece appear as two different paintings?  These are all possibilities.

The point is that we cannot always expect a painting to convey our original intentions.   It could be that the initial design was not fully understood.  It could also mean that the force of the concept was too weak and made expression difficult.  It can also mean that the painting might be transitional and that the means of painting (the means of expression) are experiencing change.   Abstract painting is like that.  Trying to resist this can be futile.  Change in style and expression is inevitable and we may start a painting quite unaware that a change in style is needed to convey the new impression.  This is I think,  what happened to this painting…I am needed to re-interpret how to say what I want to say.   I would expect this transition dillemna is true for realists as well as the abstractionist.  Part of the reason I write about the process is to understand my own psychology.  By understanding the changes in my psychology, I can better translate these into the next painting.  This one however surprised me.  Fortunately I can re-think the painting and work on the lower half once I get my bearings again.  It probably will be necessary to work on additional sketches.

Michael Wilson – Jan 2. 2015