THE JOURNEY OF A PAINTING A gallery lecture by Chery Baird
Lecture given Spring, 2001
Spruill Historic Home and Gallery Atlanta, GA
This talk today is about the journey of painting; there are three parts to it – a beginning, middle, and an end. So I'm going to make sure I'm faithful and get all the way to the end. But if you feel like you would like to ask a question, I would be happy to entertain questions as we go along.
When we talk about a vision, an idea, or dream, we talk about concept – about the kind of place that you want to be. How did that idea come along? A lot of students will come to me in class and say, "I had a dream last night where I did this fantastic painting!" I'm not trying to put anybody down here, but I'll say, "Did you put any of it down on paper yet?" [The answer typically is] "Well, no, I just had this fantastic idea." There's usually a big split between what appears in our head and what appears on the page. There has to be some way of putting that vision or dream or idea down on the page. That's what we're looking for. Everybody paints masterpieces in their head. But that isn't necessarily what happens when it starts to go down on paper.
The other thing is that you need to have an appropriate form for the thought or idea. So when you have an idea, you need to say, "Would this be better as a drawing? Would it be better as a painting? Could I say it best in pastel? Could I say it better with mixed media? Or, do I want to try all of them?" Maybe see which one works out better. You want to think about getting yourself as many alternatives – as many different ways to produce that idea – as possible.
You want to try and keep your concept simple. You can think about an idea and try not to make it too elaborate because the idea will become complex on its own. There are great many things in art that are very simple in concept, but when you go to produce something, it becomes extremely complex. You can get lost in this maze and all the things that are happening. So the simpler you can make it in the beginning, the less lost you're going to be on the way. Robert Motherwell says, "Any incentive to paint is as good as any other. There's no poor subject." That's a pretty good way to think of it. Anything that you think is interesting to paint is legitimate. It doesn't make any difference if it's the rocks in your driveway, the gravel you step on, or the concrete that's on your driveway. There are wonderful pieces that have been produced about these things that we might think are odd or strange. We have to be willing to remove ourselves from that. One of the problems of being an artist is: are we able to accept ourselves as a fool? Are we willing to be foolish to do what we want to do? Are we willing to have somebody say, as was said to me once – they didn't realize I was there, “I know somebody in eighth grade who can do that!"
I was not real happy about that. I went home and cried in the shower and Richard (my husband) brought me a gin and tonic in the shower. It was not the best day ever. There are going to be things like that. So you have to find a way to get past those and be willing to say, "I don't care if anybody likes it. I like it. This is what I want to do." Find that acceptance within yourself to accept that these things that you've been making may be odd. They may be funny. They may not be what everybody else thinks you should be doing, but they are what make you happy. You need to know if the idea fits in with your statement.
I know a lot of you don't have a statement. You want to say, "How am I going to gain by this idea? Is this something that is a necessity to produce because my family is going to enjoy it? Is this something that I'm going to learn by doing it? Is this something that fits into my long-term statement of what I want to do in art? Where does that fit in?"
You also have to think of something as a one-time painting or as a series of a body of work. Is this a one-time thing? Is this the only time you're going to produce this? This last year, many of you went through with me the journey of my producing that drawing of the two dogs. That is a onetime thing. Never to be repeated, never to be done again. Because it was for a relative, I did it. It will never be part of my body of work. I will never list it on my resume. Sometimes there is a one-time thing that you're doing for somebody that matters to you, so you produce that work. I was practically in tears the other night – but I finally got it shipped.
The other thing is this idea that you have work going into a series. A series usually intimates that there are going to be at least ten pieces along the same idea or concept. Ten is a really good number to focus on in a series because it pushes you past the ways that you already know how to solve the problem. A body of work is a much larger unit. You're talking about at least thirty or forty pieces that hang together in concept. They look like the same person did them. They're around the same kind of statement. When we look at that work we recognize that the work belongs to that particular artist. A body of work is something that you are always trying to keep as an artist.
As a professional artist, you have a body of work available to show to somebody. If the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] called today and wanted to see your work, what would you show them? Do you have a body of work that you could say, "This is who I am as an artist." It is one of the things to think about – do I have a body of work – can I put something together that is coherent? It is the same thing if you were going to show your work. Try to show pieces together that are related to each other rather than, "This is one I did fifty years ago, this is what I did right now, this is something I did for Joe Blow, this is just sort of different." It needs to be cohesive.
Sometimes, when you have an idea, the way to decide how you're going to produce it is to decide what you don't want it to be. There are some times we have a subject and we know we don't want it to be this, we don't want it to be that, so we eliminate a lot of things upfront. That makes the decision making a little easier by deciding what we don't want it to be.
When it comes to a statement, there are a lot of different ways to approach a statement. If you have a hard time verbalizing what it is that you want to paint about, or about your idea, it is a good idea to try and verbalize it – to write it down because it simplifies things in your brain. Then it's not this floating thing that is running through your brain and you keep trying to get a handle on it but you can't. You have something that's written that tells you, "This is exactly what I want it to do." --Q:
Are parameters the same thing as a statement? It would be if you were trying to build up a body of work. Before a particular series, parameters would set that. Then you could know when you were crossing the line. One of the ways to start the statement is to write words that you couldn't live without. If somebody said you had to take this thing away from your work, what are the things that you couldn't live without? It is not necessarily formal elements, though a lot of you are at the place where you are learning about formal elements. There are things beyond formal elements that you would be interested in. Artists are people producing a body of work. So when I make that list of words…probably the number one word that I couldn't live without on my list would be a grid, and second, patterns. Those two things are like my number one and two. Keep it to a list of ten words so you have some concept of what you are looking for.
One time when I was in graduate school, I stayed home all day, which didn't make my professors very happy, but I spent the whole day in bed, going through the dictionary doing a word search. I literally spent about six hours trying to find a word that would specifically describe what I do. So you go from one word, to this list of words – how many can I eliminate, what can I find next…and that sends you on to another word in the dictionary or the thesaurus to find it. So word searches are sometimes very valuable. Also, your ideas must be universal. You're always going from your universal ideas to the particular. For example, the grid is universal. How in particular am I going to use that? Where does that fit in, if that's what I'm interested in? How does that fit in with the rest of my work?
There's also studying. Ben Shahn, who was an artist back in the 30s and 40s – a more political artist, wrote a book called The Shape of Content. That used to be like the Bible for artists in a lot of ways because he talks about making the artist, filling your brain so that you have content – so you have something to say. Most of us have life experiences that we'd like to talk about. Ben Shahn's whole book is about that – creating yourself as an artist. What can you do to feed yourself so that you have something to say? You can spend your time learning how other artists put their images together.
Every year, when we go to New York, or you go to galleries here in town, a lot of times, the artist will have a statement out. I try to pick up every one that I see. It does make a lot of paper for me to bring home, but on the other hand, it is sort of nice to see the way other artists have made their statement or maybe there’s something in the way that they put their words together that really makes you interested. You may not like the images – you may not like anything about their work, but you may like the way that they put their words together. That might give you a place to start with your own statement. How did they execute their idea? If this was their statement, then did you like the way they executed? Did you see the results of those words that they put on a piece of paper in their work? When you are in graduate school, that's what you have to do – you have to write a thesis in which the words back up a body of work. You're producing thirty or forty pieces that are going to be in a show, and the words that you write in your thesis have to equal that. Your professors can be real picky about that – about that whole concept.
Frank Stella says, "The most important question facing each person who wants to paint is, 'What do you want painting to be?' That's what you have to ask yourself, and then you just have to act on it." So, what is it you want the painting to be? What is it you want the drawing to be – not considering does it make my husband happy? Does it make my children happy? Does it make my significant other happy, or my mother or my father – whoever. It is you who is responsible for that. Then the next thing to consider is how are you creative? Everybody has a different way that they are creative. Part of being an artist is learning about yourself.
I personally know that I am a maker. I have a feeling that a lot of you are makers. Makers are people who really get depressed if they go too long without making something. They have to get their fingers on it and do something. It may not necessarily be art. It may be something in the kitchen, but they like creating it. They want to be doing something. There is also the sense that a maker is usually more interested in the process than the final image. To a maker, the final image is just a bonus. It's what happens because of the process.
Another thing is that, for me as an artist, I try to think of it as having a job. If I was working for Southern Belle or somewhere else, I would go to the office every morning at eight o’clock, and I'd get off at five o’clock. People would respect that I had a job, and they wouldn't be bothering me at the office. That's one of the nice things about going downstairs to my studio in the house - the phone doesn't ring down there. It is only when I come up that I get phone calls or whatever else. The idea is that my working time is set apart. The other important thing is that I show up at the office every day, whether I really feel like it or not. So, today may not be my best creative day of all time, but there are things that I can do in my studio or at the office that can be productive without making a masterpiece that day. There's always stuff to straighten up, always stuff to clean out, always a way to organize the paint. But somehow, showing up makes a habit of working.
Stravinsky, a very fine composer, said he was very much like a shoemaker. A shoemaker makes shoes every day. Every day, Stravinsky showed up and he made music. That was it. He saw himself as a maker – somebody who showed up every day to do it, rather than a huge, major revelation. You have to decide how you're going to do it. When you look at your ideas, you have to decide what are going to be the dominant formal elements. What is it that's going to sell the piece? Is it going to be value? Is it going to be color? Is it the composition? All your ideas have to come down to some practical level. It's great to fly with the idea, but then you have to produce it. If I woke up one morning, and I said I wanted to do a brass sculpture, I know zilch about brass sculptures. So if that's something I really wanted to do, I'd have to go find an expert or I'd have to take a class to learn how to do that. It has to come back to what you are able to do.
The other idea about creativity is that people say to me, "I'm not inspired." Does that sound familiar? I call that 'The Grand Canyon Attitude.' I can't paint unless I have all my stuff, I have this free time, I have gone to the Grand Canyon, and God has made this spectacular thing for me to paint. Then, when I am there, I will be inspired. You may find out, however, going to the Grand Canyon, that there are bugs, it's too hot, you're tired, you have to lug everything in the desert…there are a lot of problems sometimes with those things that we think are going to be inspirational.
This tape I listen to occasionally on creativity talks about a writer who built a special place to write. He spent a beau coup amount of money on an oriental rug, had beautiful shelves and all that stuff, and had not written a word. He went in there and sat every afternoon, waiting to be inspired. Sometimes we don't have the best studios at home to work in. It doesn't mean we can only be inspired if we have a nice studio. Sometimes people who have gotten used to working at the kitchen table or the dining room table find that when they build a special studio, it's very difficult to get started because now they have the special place. There's a new responsibility that goes along with that. Some of the best studios have the poorest artists. Something to think about. What kind of space do you need to work in? Does the space tell you what kind of work you're going to produce? If you had a huge room, would you produce huge pieces? Do you happen to have a big space to fill?
When DeKooning built his studio on Long Island, he couldn't work at first because there was nothing there. He moved his paintings from the city, but one of the first things he had to do was fill the walls and the floor with drawings. Then he finally felt comfortable to work. So, there's creating that space. In graduate school, we went up to the University of Georgia, to see some of the studios up there. One woman's paintings were all about night. She only painted at night. The windows of her studio were covered with a black curtain across the space. Everything that was on the walls was paintings about night. She played night music, she had only one or two sources of light there and everything was about night. So when she crossed over the threshold, she was in the night. So she had set up the space to help her produce. So sometimes the way we make space makes a difference in the way we produce. So you need to think about the space.
When you decide what it is that you are going to paint about, you need to decide what are the most important things about that idea so that you can make them appear on the page. You can list those things. What do you want people to see in your painting or your drawing? Are you willing to do something really stupid to make things happen? How much does this painting matter to you? Are you willing to paint something really ugly? Are you willing to have somebody come in to your studio and say, "That is really the ugliest thing I've ever seen?" In graduate school, a lot of times, you'd be working on something, and it isn't what you wanted, so you invite your studio mate over and say, "Look at this! This is horrible!" You stand there and laugh together. You have to learn to stand back and say, "I have no idea where I'm going." That's not bad to say you don't know where you're going. It means that you're working through uncharted territory, it means that you're not producing what you already know how to produce.
If you have an idea, you want to learn to describe it in several different ways. To do this, you can do preliminary drawings or studies. One of the things I always tell people is to work on paper the same size as the final piece. If you did a value study and a temperature study of what was in front of you the same size as the final piece, if you did the negative space, the gesture and blind contour, you're going to know a lot about what is there in front of you by the time you start the final piece. Or you may find that one of those steps along the way is better than what you thought the piece was going to end up to be. A lot of times, you find that the little steps are a lot better than the final piece. A lot of times when you look at masterpieces, the paintings are great, but the drawings are better. Something got lost on the way to the painting and the freedom they felt in that drawing, because "that didn't matter." The painting is what's important. There's something in our souls that freezes up when we get to that painting.
There was a woman in one of my classes who, when I got to one, two, and three–point perspective, was in tears. She had to leave the room. She kept saying, "Can I use a ruler to do this?" I said, "Of course you can use a ruler." She said she was in a class (not locally) where this guy said that if anybody brought a ruler to class, he would break it in class and they could never return to class - which is just preposterous. But she was in tears because she was trying to have five watercolors – one for each grandchild that she could give them. She couldn't get the perspective in the pictures right. So she had put all this stress on herself. We talked for a little bit. When she came back in the room, I said, "If it really is that important to you, take a slide of all the stuff, and show it on the paper, and trace it off, and paint it. It will get you there." She said, "Isn't that cheating?" I said, "It's not cheating if it gets you what you want. Take this pressure off yourself." She was making herself miserable doing that to herself.
A lot of times, our expectations, or what we think is legitimate, stands in our way. Winston Churchill put slides on his paper, traced them off and painted them because he didn't have time to learn how to draw. His paintings sold because he was Winston Churchill. Try not to put that much stress on yourself. There's probably at least ten different ways to portray every idea. So to illustrate that idea, that's why these pieces are here. How many ways can you make a self-portrait? A self-portrait is something artists have done for centuries, so I figure you can name a few. --Responses: • By reflection • From a picture • From memory • Concept • You can put your face is a bunch of clay/cast • Psychological portrait • Mirrors at an angle so you can see yourself in the middle Audience member: "That wasn't ten, though." Well, I've got over twenty.
I have a couple of self-portraits. You all have probably seen these two at one time or another. This one is from high school. There's actually a hole in the paper. I thought that was sort of fun that it hung around for so long – that I was once so sweet and innocent. This was in the 70s, a long time ago. Here's another - an MRI. Every time I have an MRI, my husband says, "Well, at least you know you have a brain." If you've been reading any of the magazines lately, there are 1000 different ways that people are showing self-portraits these days. Kiki Smith does casts of bodies with paper. If I listed out all my medical information, that's a self-portrait that a doctor would be interested in. Every time you go to the doctor’s office, you fill that stuff out. If I get a copy of my DNA, I'm unique - I'm different. It sets me apart – a self-portrait. The measurements of my body – my body measures differently than anybody else. I'm a mother, wife, daughter, sister, a grandmother. I could outline my body. I've known artists that have lain down on the canvas and had somebody trace him or her, and then painted it in. That's as much a self-portrait. Recently, I saw in a magazine someone's drawing of the back of his or her head. Could you draw the back of somebody's head and make it a portrait? I bet you could – the gesture of the body.
In all the spy movies you watch, they do a retinal scan. Because your eyes are different than anybody else's, or your x-rays or your fingerprints. Your Social Security number. The list of your achievements – what you've done in your life. If you go to a palm reader, she's going to do a self-portrait of the wrinkles in your hand. Somebody else might feel your head and read it by the bumps and know who you are. What kind of self-portrait is that? I'm a woman. That sets me apart from at least half of the world. I'm an artist, I'm a teacher. Who am I? spiritually, emotionally, politically – all those things qualify as a self-portrait. There are 1000 different ways to really say who you are. A lot of times you make a self-portrait for whom you are talking to. So I'm a teacher to you, but at home, I'm a wife. So the self-portrait changes for who you are in the relationship with.
I brought all that stuff to give you the idea that whatever you came up with, there are a lot of different ways to say it. You don't have to be satisfied with the first five you think of. If it was really an important idea, and you came up with twenty-five different ways to say it, that makes a series. That makes the body of work. It gives you an opportunity to really explore that. When you think about your idea, you have to think about what you do best. Are you a better drawer or better painter? Which one would you want to choose? What are your skills? If you don't have the right skills, you can study and get the right skills. What makes your work unique? What sets your work apart from everybody else's? Whatever ideas you have, you are going to want to make it unique.
You have to remember there's no magic formula – there is no one way. It is what you do with what you've got. Overnight, you're not going to be a Michelangelo, so you have to use the skills that you have and proceed. If you want to take the pressure off yourself, do a series. If you do three or four of the same idea, that releases some of that pressure. You have four more chances to complete the idea. You want to be flexible. And the most important thing with any idea is to start - actually do it. That's real important. You'd be amazed at how many people can't start. They really put that off.
I told you how at Georgia State, everyone stretches their own canvas; they prepare it especially if it is a big piece. So after you've stretched it, and gessoed it, it is pristine – a beautiful white. You gather in someone’s studio, and you all look at the big white space because each of you want to see your painting on it. I was standing there with a friend one day, and we were all admiring her big canvas. She just walked up and painted marks across that big white space and said, "There now. I can work on it." It wasn't perfect anymore. Then, it wasn't pristine. Then, she felt like she could invade that space. So sometimes just making that first mark breaks the ice. It gets rid of it.
The Horrible Middle or "I'm Whining Now!"
When you begin a painting, it is like being in love. Everything is wonderful; it is a great place to be. Nothing in the painting is irritating you. It looks wonderful – you are thrilled, you are a genius. Shortly thereafter the slide starts. If it is somebody you are in love with then maybe you find out that they don't dress appropriately. They have somebody rotten in their family they don't want to deal with. Maybe they don't put the lid on the toothpaste. In relationships, these things come, and you have to make a decision – are you going to put up with those things to stay in love with that person or are you going to ditch them?
It is sort of the same way with painting. No matter how much planning and preparation you've done in the beginning, funny things happen that you are not prepared for. When you start in on that painting, you have to learn to become friends with the things that suddenly appear on the page that you did not call into being. There are definite things that you put on the page, but then there are things that, of their own volition, appear. You can either choose to ignore those, try to get rid of them, or you can welcome them as friends/participants in the painting. It is better to welcome them.
Paintings have a life of their own. They insist on being themselves. They are sort of like children. When children are real little, we feel like we have some kind of control over them. But as they get older, you realize you really don't have much control at all. Control goes out the window in a painting in much the same way. We don't really have the control that we think we do over the painting, and we shouldn't. The other thing to remember is the painting is always in flux. Things are constantly changing. That's one of the reasons you have to be flexible.
Vincent van Gogh said, "I'm always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it." When you're working on the painting you want to remember that your head, your hand, and the image each have an equal voice. So if I admire van Gogh, and want to make marks just like him, no matter how much I admire him, the marks I make are not going to look like van Gogh’s because I'm Chery Baird. But some time, I'm going to have to make peace with myself that this is the way my hand operates. This is the way information flows from my brain down to my hand. I have to welcome my hand as part of the piece, and my head cannot control the entire piece. As things appear on the page, the image starts to have a voice. Those three things. Head, hand, and image are what have to have equal voices.
The other thing to remember about our skills is that our head is usually ahead of our hand. So if you've read something fantastic, or you've learned something fantastic recently in art, it is not going to show up on the page until about six weeks later, if you are working consistently. So, especially in the beginning, when you're learning, your head is going to be way ahead of your hand. That is depressing because you think, "I know this mentally, why is it not happening on the page? Why can't I see the effects of that?" You have to tell yourself – it will show up. If I keep working that direction, it will show up. You have to have faith. In the beginning, it is hard to have faith. So it would be nice to have a teacher or some other art friend who will say, "If you keep headed that way, it will work out."
Always remember that perfection isn’t required, but continuing the journey is. You're never going to get anywhere unless you persevere. You have to slog through it to get to the other side. You can't jump over it, you can't go around it, you have to go through it. A long time ago when I made decisions about paintings, I would say to myself, "That is a good decision." Or "That was a bad decision." I made decisions quicker that way. I've learned that I should try to keep every decision neutral. I try not to think if it is good or bad. I try to think that it is just different. So now I have something new that is happening here, and as each thing happens, I say, "Now, how am I going to deal with that?" Whether my decision was good or bad doesn't make a difference – it is there now and I have to deal with what is there.
Every time you say, "That was good," or "That was bad," you're saying something about yourself. A lot of times, you think all the decisions you're making are bad so you're building up a negative attitude about yourself. We have to remember that every decision you make will equip you to make a better decision next time. Every time you make a decision, you're helping yourself learn. The more decisions you can move through in any given piece, painting, drawing, whatever it is, the better off you'll be because practicing making those decisions will make it easier to make a decision the next time. When you hit a hard spot in a painting, you want to use past successes to inform the present. If you don't feel like you have any past successes, then go look at other artists’ work and see how other people solve the problem. What did Leonardo do? What did Michelangelo do? What did van Gogh do, or Frank Stella or Jasper Johns? You've heard this expression from my husband before: "You are either green and growing or ripe and rotting." A lot of times when I'm working on a painting, I say, "OK, do I want to be green and growing or ripe and rotting?" To be green and growing, I have to make a change. I don't know whether that change is going to help the painting or injure the painting, but I have to make a change. You have to be very courageous sometimes in making those decisions.
Another thing you can do if you're worried about the process is to photograph the stages of your painting or drawing. Sometimes that informs you about where things started to go wrong. If you realize there is a critical point in your painting where you need to step back and take a look at those decisions, you'll want to know how those decisions affected the final outcome. The other thing to develop is informed or educated intuition. You can do that by visiting museums, workshops, reading, looking at pictures, figuring out how other artists did it, or by changing mediums. If you are having a hard time with the painting, for example, take a day off and spend the day drawing. Often the solution comes on its own.
You are always expanding your vocabulary as an artist. One of the things in building a good informed intuition is looking at good work. Try not to look at trash. Try to know who are the best artists, and try to know what you are looking at. When they train bankers to know which is a counterfeit dollar bill and which is a real one, they absolutely never show them a counterfeit. They only show them real bills, so that they know the real thing so well, they will recognize when it is a counterfeit. You want to try and look at the real thing and learn from that, not counterfeits. The museum is always a good place to learn because somebody who is educated in art has chosen those pieces. They may not be pieces that you personally are happy with, but they have something to tell you about real art. Spend time with those.
After you've experienced the cycle of your paintings many times, it is easier to accept that horrible middle slot because you know you will come out on the other side. The same goes for the cycle of working. You get into what I call a roll. There is a whole roll over a period of months. You get inside of that cycle, and any interruption, like a vacation for three weeks disturbs that role and you have to start all over again. If you can get inside that roll and stay there, the decisions are easier, the work is easier. It flows. There is a whole flow to it. That is one of the reasons it is important to always be working on something. Keep your hand in it. When you are not inside the roll, say you are like me, and you are working on several pieces at a time. If I have fifty pieces I'm working on, some of those pieces are closer to the end then others; some are at the beginning, some are in the middle.
When I go into the studio there are ways that I get into painting. One of the ways is that if I have a stack of paintings, I'll roll through those, even if I am not going to work on those paintings that day. So I can look at where I am and it helps. If I have a painting that I thought was supposed to be at the end, I would never make any decisions about that the first hour I was downstairs. I would wait until I was doing something, painting on something else to make the final decisions. I make better decisions after I've been working for a while, not coming straight from trying to deal with doctors on the phone or children or whatever else. I have to give myself that time to slide into that.
When you teach, it is interesting to see how people start images. It usually takes from a half an hour to an hour and you can see their whole bodies change. Their interest level goes up and down. There is a rhythm. Over the years, I've had several people who are "dancers" – they dance when they paint (not professional dancers). You can tell when they are really enjoying their painting because their whole body does the gestural thing. So if they have another piece they need to make a decision about, then that is the time, when they are "inside" of that. There are times when you realize that your brain isn't on for art, but it is a day you have to spend in the studio. So work on things that are still valuable. Put on some music, putter around the studio. Do some drawing. Make some collage. The act of doing these things is what sets the stage for you, and begins to make things click.
Adolph Gottlieb said, "When I am 'in' my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'getting acquainted' that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess." Remember that you have to get yourself out of the way sometimes. Again, getting that head out of the picture. Sometimes the things that arrive make the painting better than it ever would've been without them. Sometimes we are so caught up in the idea that we have that we are not willing to see those. Sometimes we have to give it a little space. Sometimes we have to sacrifice part of the idea or parts of the painting to make it resolved. I think sacrifice is a big part of being an artist because just about the time you get something you like is about the time you have to take it out of the picture.
The advice that was given to me a long time ago was that if there is a spot that you really love, take it out. It is amazing that once you get over that and grieve, for that three minutes that it takes to get over it, how easily the painting moves ahead. That one little thing that you've been trying to get around, trying to save, trying to make everything else match up to, is holding back the whole painting. What I've learned over the years is that if it is really important, if it is really valuable, it will appear again on the page. I can make it come back. It may come back in a different way, but I can make it come back. Or I can put it in another piece. Or, as I've told people, if it is so valuable, cut it out, and use it for a piece of collage. That sounds mean, doesn't it? But that's what sacrifice is – being really mean. You have to get that thing out of the way.
Sometimes, a painting is like a phoenix. The best paintings rise out of the ashes. Something that you thought was a lost cause one day, you are working over here, and you say, "I'll try that,” and all of a sudden that painting is there, it is clicking, everything is working on the page. Sometimes the dominant idea that you had for a painting grows faint. When that happens, you can review again from that little list of words you made – what you wrote about – that idea. What was it you really wanted to make happen? Is it going to happen with this painting or am I going to have to get rid of that idea altogether and let this painting progress? Do I start over again on this idea on another page? Review those things so you can make that happen.
Remember that you are building a visual journey and you want to let the viewer participate. If everything goes hunky-dory, there is very little chance that the viewer is ever going to participate in the painting. It is the struggle that appears on the page that allows the viewer to participate in that drawing or painting. Having everything go well in a painting is really scary because, as an artist, you know this is not good. This is too facile, too easy. It is going to end up to be a slick painting, which is not where you want to be. Sometimes just taking small steps through that middle helps, rather than doing something huge, dramatic. A lot of times, if there is a shape that I think belongs in the painting, I'll paint it on another piece of paper, cut it out and lay it on top. Then set it up across the room and see if I like the way it looks. Do I like it turned around, diagonally? Would I rather have a rough edge? Straight edge? What is it doing for the image?
Normally, you are wanting to make your image more complex, rather than simpler, because you have to have enough information if you plan to edit. There is such a thing as too simple of a painting. It has to have some depth to it. So when I teach, I'm always trying to get people to put more information onto the page. Then you can eliminate, edit some of that out and still have lots of stuff left. Think about trying to get lots of information down on the page and then editing it.
Always remember that in painting, you have all the time in the world. You have the rest of your life. If it isn't finished today, it can be finished next week. It can be finished in a few nights, a few years. I have pieces that I've had hanging around three or four years and I'm not finished. When the day is right, they'll get finished. If they don't get finished, great. I've learned something from how I got there.
Decisions at the end are more important, more critical. Sometimes you think you are at the end, and the painting sends you back to the horrible middle again – it was not at the end. It sets you back three steps the other way. If it is something especially representational, you have to ruin a few before you know when to stop. There isn't always a teacher or somebody in the room with you to say, "Now is the time to stop. Do not touch that anymore."
When I studied with Ouida Canaday, there was a lady in class who loved to tell people when to stop their paintings. When Ouida would leave the room, she'd say, "Now, don't speak to anybody!" Because she knew as soon as she got out of the door, someone would say, "Oh I really like this as it is!" There is something about when somebody says they like something in your painting, you don't want to touch it. So you try not to do that. You have to learn to set up a critiquing system on your own when you ruin it and realize it was better an hour or half an hour ago, you learn to slow down that final decision-making time. If you are in class, and you don't want to make a decision, take a tour of the hall. In an office, you'd take a trip to the water cooler, have a drink, speak to four or five people on the way, and then you come back and make a decision. You can do the same thing when you are painting. You don't have to stay right there.
Sometimes at the end of the painting, you think, "OK, if I do this one little thing, it will finish the painting," and then it doesn't. There is a sort of depression along with that, and you have to do one more thing and one more thing, and you think, "This is sort of dragging this out." But sometimes you have to paint things fifteen, twenty, twenty-five times to make sure they are going to be exactly what you want.
Sometimes you have to return to the basics. Part of that is learning to surprise yourself with the painting. If it is something that you need to look at for a longer period of time, at my house, I would take it upstairs and put it next to the TV when I know I'm going to watch TV so I can flip between looking at that piece and watching the TV. Also, by the TV I can see it from the kitchen. When I walk from the back of the house to the kitchen, I can see it to my left. I get to see it from a different point of view. It surprises me. It comes into my focus as I come around the corner. Put it at the end of the hall where I'm far away from it. Now I'm walking towards it. What happens? Does it look different with the afternoon light coming into that hallway? Does the light at night change things? You can turn your painting. Does it look better upside down? Does it look better on the side? Does that tell me something about the balance? Is it out of balance? Can you tell me specifically what you like or dislike about that painting? Can you specifically name it?
A story from when I was learning… My husband knows absolutely nothing about art. And I know nothing about golf… We are experts in our area, but he can be visual. When I used to bring a painting home, I would ask him to look at the painting and see if he could find anything wrong with it. Not what's right with it, but what's wrong with it. He would invariably pick out the same spot that my teacher had just told me about. His reasons why that spot was not right had absolutely nothing to do with art. But, in his gut, he knew that it was wrong. You'd be amazed at how many times, if you give people a chance, they can feel that there is something wrong and can tell you. But they can't tell you how to change it. It is interesting information.
All of you have people at your house – ask them about it. All they can do is think that you're weird. You can scan a painting. If I want to see how the painting is going, I scan it from the right to the left – I move my hand across it, when do I reach an area that I do not like? If I start this way, where does that spot appear? If I start at the bottom and work up, or start at the top and move down. You can almost always locate it - it will appear. Does anybody know what the definition of a weed is? A plant out of place. Even if it is the most fabulous rosebush in the world, if it is in the wrong spot, it is a weed. That's my husband's definition – his degree is in horticulture. I've always thought that was interesting. Sometimes we think that a rosebush is so fabulous we’re afraid to move it, to look at it. Sometimes it is the bush and sometimes it is the area around the rosebush. Sometimes it is the rosebush that has to be moved. So when we look at a painting, it may be a whole trouble spot that needs to be moved, or maybe what's around it needs to be changed to make the rosebush look better. We get focused on how it must be the rosebush, and not always what's around it.
When you finish a painting, there should be that little hum that happens inside your soul that says, "Now everything looks right. Now I can live with it. Now I can sign it." I really hate signing things. It is my pet peeve. My mother has had paintings for fifteen years before I've signed them. She's reminded me to sign them, but I put it off. Now I put it off until I have to frame them. I sign on the back of my favorite pieces when I take them upstairs. I used to hate signing them because that meant the piece was done – that I couldn't touch it anymore. Somehow, as long as I haven’t signed it, I can add to it. That place of satisfaction will be different for everyone.
You need to develop that critiquing ability for yourself. It is wonderful to have other people's input, but you have to decide what that level is for yourself. If you really think the painting is a failure, my first solution is to eat chocolate chip cookies. Chocolate always helps. My grandmother would say, "No great loss without some small gain." So, even if the painting is a total failure, you have the decision-making ability to learn from what happened with that. You can always use it for collage. If you get one good painting out of the first 100, you are doing well. The number doesn't go up a whole lot after that. So, what if you get five good paintings out of the next 100? That's a whole lot better. We tend to think of each painting as a do or die painting – that this is the only one. But if you consider that you will do 10,000 paintings before you die, and this is just one of the 10,000. It takes the stress off of you. You can do another one next week.
How can I take this experience? What did I learn from making what you think is a failure? A lot of times, what you think is a failure turns out to be your best piece. They tend to be the pieces you learn the most from. If I look at this painting that I consider a failure, where would I start on the next piece coming off of that? Is the concept or idea one that I can still use? When you walk through the woods at night, and you have a flashlight that shows you where to step, but the person carrying the flashlight is behind you, and they're only shining the flashlight on your feet, you're always taking a stab in the dark. That's what it is like in painting. You're taking that step on faith that there will be something there to step on. You have to say that your work is coming out of what went before – all the successes, all the failures is where the next idea comes from, where the work proceeds from.
As artists, we assume a responsibility to dream, conceive, plan, execute, and often distribute with very little help from anyone else. It can be a very lonely process. When we have two or three failures in a row, we get really depressed. As an artist, you have to maintain a self-defense system. It helps to be encouraged by others. Every quarter I see how encouraging you all are to each other and your work. So that effect is very humbling – to be encouraged by someone who knows something about art. Or at least you figure they are in the same boat you are, in the same place.
I often hear people coming to class and say, "Oh, I've been there – you should see my first painting. You should see what I did!" Those kinds of things are very encouraging to people. You have to learn to laugh at yourself, at your situation, to laugh at the painting. Humor goes a long way. I always say the two most important qualities for being an artist are humor and perseverance. It doesn't take great talent – you can learn all that stuff. Sometimes we need to take a step back and look at the big picture. You want to keep in mind that Picasso was jealous of Braque, and Braque was jealous of Othon Friesz (who's he?). Sometimes who we are jealous of means nothing in the long-term run of things.
When I get excited about things, my mother always says, "Just think this over. Is it really going to matter ten years from now?" When you put it in those terms, is this one painting going to matter in ten years? No, it's not. When the hem pulls out of your dress just before you leave the house, just think whether this is really going to matter in ten years. Just put a piece of tape on it and go. Sometimes, work therapy helps. Just getting in the studio and doing something. Once we get our bodies active, we aren't as depressed. We're moving, doing something. The very act of doing something cheers us up.
When I get depressed, a lot of times, I go through my catalogs. I picked those catalogs because I liked them – they are inspirational to me. It doesn't take very long looking at those paintings before I think, "Ooh! – I can do this! I can do that!" Then you are right back in the studio. Find those things that will help you. Count your blessings in art. Your brain gets a different kind of break than you get any other way. It is a meditation, a suspension in time. It is a restful vacation. You use complex thinking, which is excellent for your brain.
Jasper Johns said, "I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can't avoid saying." That tells you about the sincerity of art. You can't avoid things. It says something about you.
I had to write about painting in college. I've always believed that painting was a collection of variegated marks that have been combined to express the artist’s intent. Whether or not the painting is successful, the artist has to be satisfied on some level. The painting has to answer the artist’s need. Beyond the formal elements, and all the things that work that way, they have to answer what Kandinsky would call internal necessity.
When you produce work, it has to be like a marriage. Some marriages are good, some are bad, some in between, some extraordinary. The extraordinary is hard to describe in a marriage or painting because it is so very unusual. That's why a very good painting has the power it has and is so valuable to the human spirit.
I once heard Edward Betts speak and to paraphrase him, "The technical level is expected. It is what the artist does beyond that that matters." In other words, it is the way the artist puts his mind on canvas, when everything else is said and done. My absolute favorite quotation of all time is from the book The Anxious Object by Harold Rosenberg. "The adeptness of the artist’s mind, achieved through devouring problems of art, is the ultimate art project. Its evidences are what confer value on particular paintings and sculptures… It matters not in what mode an artist begins, whether with colored squares, a streak of black, the letter ‘D’ or the drawing of a nude. All beginnings are clichés, and the formal repertory of modern art was fairly complete by 1914. It is finding the obstacle to going ahead that counts – that is the discovery and the starting point of metamorphosis. Uniqueness is an effect of duration in action, of prolonged hacking and gnawing. In the course of engagement a mind is created. Apart from that, every kind of excellence can be copied." The term "painting” moves into this sphere where the activity that takes place cannot be described in concrete terms – it can only be described in our response to it. All the quotations that I’ve found hit around it, but none of them nail it firmly in place because we have yet to find a way to perfectly describe the human soul.
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