Monday, July 20, 2015

Six Tips on Landscape (and other kinds of) Painting

Rockwell Kent, Moonlight in the Adirondacks. 
1. The late Canadian landscapist Robert Genn suggested that, “rather than go with your first choice in a composition, go with your second choice.” Why? I think because we’re scared little puppies and we want to be told we’re good artists, so we stand there summoning up every bit of what we know works before we even beginBut the first composition that “comes to you” is probably one you’ve received from paintings you’ve studied and liked. "It’s likely to be in your comfort zone, but it is your second choice that will stretch your capabilities and expose new creativity. How to do this?" Genn suggests the following: “slowly rotate yourself in a full circle, taking every possibility into consideration. Sort out and at least anticipate the potentials of every angle before you start.”

Sometimes it'll just click. Something jumps out at you and suddenly you can imagine the the general outline of the finished piece, even though you have no idea how to even start - and that's your painting. 

The Flying Dutchman, by Albert P. Ryder

2. Feel, don’t think, your brushstrokes. Try to occupy your mind by imaginatively entering into your subject. Feel your subject in your imagination and let your hand follow. Painting is about expressing a feeling. Allow your feelings, not just your eye or your head, to move your hand. Paint from your arm, not your wrist. There will be time for fussing - er, I mean "polish" - later.

Stuart Shils, Urban Landscape, An Unexpected Place, 2012
available at Somerville Manning Gallery
3. Mix colors promiscuously, apply them relationally. Pare down your palette to the primaries and a few earths, forget "color theory" and just play. Be an alchemist - mix nameless colors (as Eric Aho is fond of saying). Make a color and put it on the canvas. Make another one and place it next to the first one. NO FEAR. It isn't possible to mix "mud." Don't believe me? Look at the foreground color in the square that's front and center in the painting by Stuart Shils above. Well, yeah, that's "mud color," but it only makes the painting better when you notice it: look how well it relates to the surrounding colors, especially the warm pale yellow immediately above and the deep, electric violet to the bottom right. Paint that is the color of mud is beautiful and absolutely right when placed on a canvas relationally and with intention. "Mud" (the bad kind) is something that happens not on the palette but on the canvas when you smear colors together, usually because you're using numerous brushstrokes in a desperate effort to "fix" something (I think in most such cases the cause of the trouble isn't with the color you've put on but with its value. We end up trying to blend it into submission (resulting in muddy colors) - much better is to take off the stroke, remix the color to the proper value, and put it back fresh). Ideally: "Put it on and leave it on." 

Eric Aho, March

4. Design, design, design. Pay more attention to what’s happening on the canvas than to what’s “out there.” Consider everything - color, shape, value, stroke - in relation NOT to exactly what's "there"  in the world but to everything else on the canvas. Reject received compositions. Be a brilliant composer. Improvise: Play jazz. Ultimately, it’s not accuracy or faithfulness to the visible (to a particular marsh, mountain foliage color, or ocean wave), but what ends up on the canvas that makes the painting live or die. 

Jake Berthot

5. Maintain a dialogue with the painting. To open up this dialogue you have stop frequently, after every few strokes. Consider what’s just happened and instead of worrying about how to fix it, ask what it suggests about what might happen next. React imaginatively - yes, to your subject - but also to each new relationship of color and brushwork that you create. Everything you do changes the equation; the sooner you notice how it’s adding up, the better you’ll feel at the end. Oil paintings are infinitely changeable, and creativity ultimately mysterious - but if you can stop insisting that it it's your way or the highway, your painting may just start leading you where you really want to go (whether you know it or not).

Samsara (oil, 12x12") Zhaoming Wu, 2015
available at Abend Gallery
6. Sit at the feet of masters. Not literally; I mean find the paintings that humble and excite you, that make your head explode, that make you say "Yes - THAT'S painting." They don't have to be by dead people (though some of them probably should be). Just let yourself be blown away by what an artist you've encountered has achieved. This isn't the time to ask "how?" Just feel it. Take it in. Look long. "Listen" to the painting, in part and in whole. See what someone has done, take a deep breath, and remember how it makes you feel. Implicitly understand the "why" - the only answer to which you need to know is: "Because Damn - that's PAINTING."

JMW Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed, the Great Western Railway, 1844

Friday, July 10, 2015

Wolf Kahn: Excerpts from a Conversation

I recently spent an hour with Wolf Kahn for a profile I’ve written for Art New England, which will be published in the September/October 2015 issue. I wound up with a lot of good material that wasn’t going to make it in. Here are the quotes as I wrote them down (though not necessarily in order). All of the paintings are, of course, by Wolf Kahn.

On why he chose and stuck consistently with landscape: Always gnawing the same bone allows me to have a coherent development. Of course, you know, only after 70 years does that appear.

I tried to paint the figure, but I found out that if you needed an extra limb you’d have to be Michelangelo to do it. In landscapes you can add another limb and no one is the wiser.

I was a faithful (Hans) Hofmann student. Probably I still am. 

I thought I was going to be like Bonnard and van Gogh, who painted everything (landscapes, the figure, the still life) but I found out that it was in landscape that I could contribute, that I had something personal to say. I painted a painting called “The Artist On the Way to the Motif” - but it didn’t have the artist in it. I kept painting him in and out and in again. Finally I painted him out all together. Then I was home free.

I’m interested in an overriding rhythm. I’m trying to get beyond intention. As soon as you have a brush in your hand you have a tool that’s going to make you descriptive. I didn’t want to be a descriptive artist.

I never think about color. Color came as a byproduct of other concerns. 

I thought of myself as a formalist, building recognizable structures - that would arrive at their meaning easily. 

I’m not a programmatic painter. I try to let things happen. 

I try to do things I haven’t done before and that I haven’t seen other people do and that allow me to be surprised.

If it’s a surprise for me, it might be a surprise for the audience.

I never had any kind of program. 

Like T.S. Eliot said, immature artists are influenced, mature artists steal. Who did he steal from? Oh, well Rembrandt, Kokoshka first, Bonnard, van Gogh, Vuillard... 

More recently I’ve allowed myself to become very influenced by Jackson Pollock - his process of painting was that he didn’t want to know what his painting would look like when it was done. 

I like to paint. I go to the studio, I go out with my friend Raymond in his Volvo, and we drive around till we find a place that’s conducive to work. How do you know it’s conducive? Until you see some relationship between things, and you can start out that way.

People say there’s a spiritual element in my painting. But I say if there is, you put it there.

People think that I’m painting Vermont, but I keep saying I’m painting paintings. 

What really interests me now is to create textures. I’m still painting the landscape, but I find the more stuff I put on, the better the painting. 

On the influence of abstract expressionism: It gave a certain weight to being an artist - What did you have to go on? Some kind of idea of accident and beauty and strength, and trying to stay away from description. 

On not becoming an abstract expressionist painter: I found out that the fact that I liked to draw kept getting in the way. I was always a hotshot draughtsman. I didn’t want to make that sacrifice. 

But I wanted to draw with as much freedom as I could possibly could. As soon as you TRY to describe something you’re already abrogating that freedom. 

I was always on the edge of abstraction without being an abstract painter. I was always interested in the brushstroke and the way different forms appeared on the surface. 

On the oft-proclaimed “death of painting”: You know, I went to school with Alan Kaprow and he said, “Every brushstroke I make reminds me of another artist.” So he quit painting and became a “Happenings” guy, and he said, “Painting is dead.” But at the same time we had a show in San Diego, and he gave a lecture in which he said some very nice things about my paintings. So what is that quote - about how only a fool would not permit himself to hold two contradictory ideas in one head? (His assistant later dug up the quote in question - Wolf was thinking of Emerson’s “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”) 

What advice would you give to beginning painters? To express enthusiasm, which literally means to be inspired by the gods. The most important thing is the capacity to feel and express enthusiasm. Allow whatever enthusiasm you have - whatever it is - to come into your work.

I have a feeling painting is its own discipline, has its own language. Painting is one of the things that makes life more interesting. It’s like talking in public - you try to make painting as interesting as baseball. It is like some exciting sport - painting has its own set of rules. You don’t really get to know them all, but you can sure as hell see when they’re being violated or not considered. 

But I don’t think of myself as an intellectual. I think of myself as a workman.

The official art world doesn’t recognize my work because it’s not provocative - I’ve never tried to be provocative. I think when you paint you should be wearing your best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes - so that the best of you comes out rather than things that are going to shake people up. I never wanted to shake people up .... shaking myself up, yes!