How Long Does It Take?

"How long does it take you to do a painting?" It's a question I often get asked, yet the answer, as it pertains to the development of an individual canvas, hardly seems sufficient.

I remember a pastel class I took, not too long ago, where the instructor was asked that very question. Without hesitating, he explained, "57 years." Evidently, he was referring to his age. The answer confounded the class, seeming to avert the question in favor of creative secrecy. Recently, I saw a film on Mark Rothko (Simon Schama's- The Power Of Art, Disc 3, I believe) where the artist gave the same answer.

While reflecting on the growth of my own technical abilities in recent years, I realize the explanation is actually quite thoughtful and authentic. The works I produce today are the sum-total of my very existence; it has taken me all my life to learn how to 'see' the world; how to communicate with it. That progression continues constantly, whether or not I choose to work on any given day. Every comprehensive moment shapes what and how I paint. Therefore, my work is the collective insight of my life experience.

Painting As Dialogue

Over the last few years, while working to improve my painting skills, I have grown more conscious of my process. In doing so, I sought to make it more efficient; weeding out certain actions in favor of others that serve to improve the overall effort. One of the actions I am working to employ more frequently is stepping away from a painting to gain a greater perspective of the whole. As I worked yesterday, I was thinking of this very thing while putting it into a slightly different context.

I thought about painting as dialogue. Through illustrated relationships of color, content, line, form, and rhythm, I am creating a language. In the past, I perceived that language as a statement to the viewer. If the viewer discovers a connection that attracts their attention, no matter how brief, an interaction has taken place. Taking a step back from that point of view, however, I must acknowledge the conversation that takes place between me and the canvas, before I even share it with anyone else.

My process begins with a concept. I then work to apply that concept to a canvas through paint, but the idea is not fixed from the beginning; there are too many factors- too many color combinations, lines, sessions- preventing clarity to really see a finished painting before I begin it (though I am getting better at it). I therefore look for visual cues from the canvas to help me tell a better story. This is the esoteric nature of art. As I apply the first strokes of paint to the surface, I am initiating a conversation. As any conversation goes, one person speaks to another, but then there must be reciprocity. I need to give my canvas more of that. I must step back and enjoy the process; to listen before reacting. Perhaps sit down and have a cup of coffee, appreciating the ritual before I respond to what I hear. I believe allowing space for this exchange will help me to produce greater work because it fosters a wider perspective.

Seemingly Nothing

As I was painting the other day, I sensed dissatisfaction coming over me. I felt like nothing was happening, that things were stagnant. My current body of work didn't seem all that different from the previous body. As I began to delve further into the feeling, however, I realized my initial impression wasn't really true at all.

The previous body of work (from a series I call Album 1) was already hanging on the walls of my studio so I hung the newer work of Album 2 to the left for comparison. In little, but obvious ways, I saw an emerging confidence in my compositions. The change in value within a single form was more subtle and effective. The colors were richer. Much to my surprise, I saw plenty of growth.

When nothing seems like it's going on, transformation is actually occuring on the inside. Eventually, it will manifest itself outward. I just have to trust it will.

Unforeseeable Future

Every year around Mother's Day, I go to the neighborhood plant-nursery to buy flowers for two giant pots I have in the front of my studio. This is my garden and I revel in tending to it, watching it grow, and admiring the colors that burst from its soil like thick brush strokes projecting outward from the canvas. This year has been a challenging one for me. There were too many things going on, preventing me from buying the flowers this spring. Lack of time and money, while obsessing about not having enough of either, kept me away from my annual ritual of the season.

The summer months quickly passed, as they always do, and I was reminded of my situation every day as I stepped outside, on to my patio where I saw brown empty pots, void of any color. But somewhere in the middle of the summer, I saw life had indeed returned to my garden without my help. I am not really sure what is growing in my pots, whether it's a weed or perhaps a flower that managed to germinate on the behalf of an artist open for change, but it doesn't matter. It gave me hope. Furthermore, it clearly illustrated that life doesn't always happen the way you want it to, yet it continues to flourish in wonderful and unexpected ways.

It's All About Perspective

One technique that artists, particularly painters, employ is to step back from the art frequently to gain a different perspective on the work. By doing this, we can see the work within a greater context. Often, this perspective uncovers clues that help direct us to where we want to take the work.

As I paint, for example, I am only working at an arm's length, away from canvas. If it is a larger piece, more than say 12" in any direction, because of my close proximity to the canvas, my attention is focused only on the passage I am working on. Yet, there is still a larger area of the canvas I am consequently ignoring from this intimate view. In order to find harmony within the painting, I therefore need to step back to make sure the passage I am working on works within the larger composition. Additionally, stepping back enables me to more clearly see how the painting as a whole works.

By stepping back, I am providing myself opportunities to see things from a broader perspective and make changes that serve to unite the work, making it stronger. I believe this is a metaphor for looking at life beyond art.