BREAKING IN MY MEXICO STUDIO
December 15, 2014
I was still in the process of setting up my Mexico studio in December 2014. I hadn’t yet completed a painting there—at least not one I was happy enough with to keep.
Part of that was because I didn’t yet have some of what I needed, most of all a decent disposable palette, which is my longtime preference (I was making do with a wall mirror). But it was also because I was in a new place, a new situation, and my confidence wasn’t what it needed to be. Painting, in case you didn’t know, requires a lot of confidence! Paintings don’t just snap into shape with a lackadaisical approach. You have to be bold and assertive with the paint. I wasn’t quite there yet.
That was demonstrated with my first try at a Dominican Republic landscape in early December. I did everything I usually do to get a painting off and running. I chose a landscape photo I liked a lot (one of the images I shot on the beach at Las Terrenas), then tweaked it in Photoshop to simplify the colors and allow me to more easily see the big shapes (you can see my 3 reference photos above). Next I drew it onto the canvas with pencil. I kept the pencil underdrawing fairly faithful to the photograph but didn’t bother with much detail, just general placement of the large masses. Then I added a wash and started mixing colors.
Then I dove in and started adding color (above). This is always a crucial phase, where the magic is either there or it isn’t. This time, as I saw fairly early, it wasn’t. I could’ve finished it and it would have been passable, but I wasn’t feeling it. If I’m not feeling it, painting becomes a tedious, unhappy experience. And that would have shown in the final painting. So I got out my gesso and obliterated it.
I won’t lie, I was discouraged. This was the 5th or 6th painting I’d done in my Mexico studio and I still hadn’t found my feet. I sat down and looked at the lacklustre landscape I’d just put several hours into, and asked myself what was missing. Almost as soon as I bothered to formulate the question, I knew the answer.
Or, to use a more delicate word, courage. Or yet another word I like: BOLDNESS.
I had been playing it safe. Why, I asked myself yet again, is it so difficult to remember that playing it safe NEVER WORKS?? Ah, the perversity of the human mind. It keeps convincing us that we should do what’s easy and comfortable and not dangerous. Then we find our lives have grown boring and we wonder why.
This also goes back to my comment in the first paragraph above. Painting (at least what I consider GOOD painting) requires boldness and assertiveness. It’s like a rebellious wild beast that requires you to prove over and over again that you’ve got what it takes to master it.
I really liked this image and I wasn’t ready to give up. I decided to get out my big whip and try again to tame this lion.
I began again, and this time I spent a bit more time working on the underdrawing. Rather than just trying for accuracy I paid attention to the vectors. By that I mean the lines of movement, or force, that draw the eye across and through the image. This additional attention to the actual structure made a big difference. This time the underdrawing had some life and energy of its own, and while not enough to guarantee success, at least it was a better stage setting for its possibility. I drew over it with a black acrylic pen and liked the base drawing even more.
Then it was time to start painting. I knew I had to jump off the cliff this time; no playing it safe. I prepared for the big jump as I often do, by looking at the paintings of other artists who inspire me, paintings with bold, exciting brushwork and the willingness to give up humdrum accuracy and clearcut edges for energy, life, excitement. These are paintings where I can clearly feel the courageous jump that has been taken by the painter.
Looking at these paintings and letting them soak into me for a few minutes gave me the courage I needed. I loaded up the paintbrush with some blue for the sky, aimed at the canvas, then closed my eyes!—and let ‘er rip! That first stroke obscured part of my careful underdrawing, which would seem disastrous at first, but no, it was exactly what was needed. The underdrawing was a mere suggestion, and not meant to be followed too closely. What was more important was the energy of the stroke. I repeated the same sequence, and then did it again, sometimes leaving my eyes open, but more often closing them so that I was less in control and the paint was having its way with the canvas. (See my blog entry from June 10, 2014, Painting Blind.)
I was keeping the paint very wet, too, so that it would drip and run. This is an important component for me these days; it’s a visual reminder that the painting is about the paint itself more than the image. It’s also another way to ‘break up’ the image, which I find much more visually exciting than mere accuracy.
By this time I was sailing! I had had the balls to dominate the painting right from the first stroke, and it was paying off. For the rest of the painting it was just a matter of staying in that space….which is not an easy thing either. As the painting gets more and more exciting, there’s a very strong tendency to want to keep from screwing it up. That’s when you have to renew your determination to dominate the painting, even if it means destroying it over and over again.
I managed to do that: mess the painting up over and over again until it was perfect. Yes, I know how crazy that sounds, (and nothing is ever perfect except maybe a painting that doesn’t want anything more done to it) but that’s exactly what happened, and what always happens with my best paintings.
I called the finished work “Republica Dominicana” and besides being a terrific piece of work I’m very happy with, it also served as the true christening of my Mexican studio. Turns out I couldn’t properly break in my new studio until I broke through my own walls.