Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Remnants of Your Tears and Smiles
(oil on canvas, 2017)

Before moving to Maine, I lived in Massachusetts and worked in a corporate office as a graphic designer and illustrator. I would usually try to devote my lunch hour to my art. Initially, my office was in Boston and I would often go to museums or galleries to look at paintings. When my employer moved to Foxborough, I would go outside and draw at lunchtime if the weather was nice. During the winter or inclement weather, I would visit one of several libraries in the area and read art books.

The library in the town of Sharon had a decent collection, especially given the diminutive size of both the town and its library. As a bonus, there was also a Starbucks within walking distance so I could eat my lunch on the drive there, get a coffee and then sit in the library and look at and read about art. My favorite book there was a large, full colour catalog of a 1987 exhibition of Hudson River School painters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “American Paradise: the World of the Hudson River School”. I read it cover to cover and would often return just to look at the illustrations. (When I eventually moved to Maine, I found a used copy of the book on the internet and frequently refer to it.) I was, of course, quite impressed with the work of Frederic Church, especially his “Niagara”, which covered a two-page spread in the middle of the book and the wonderful “Twilight in the Wilderness”, a view near Mount Katahdin, not far from where I live now.

But, for me, the best part of the book was a short section near the end devoted to George Inness, whose association with the Hudson River School had more to do with geographical proximity than stylistic similarity. His work was much more painterly and had an ethereal quality that I felt a strong affinity for. I tracked down a couple of monographs of him and his work and , over the ensuing months, saw several of his original paintings in various museums in New England. (The museum at Colby College here in Maine, arguably the best art museum in the state, has a brilliant George Inness painting called “The Spirit of Autumn”.)

One of my George Inness books contains a lengthly and insightful interview with the artist. Although I don’t agree with his assessment of JMW Turner’s “Slave Ship” (one of my favorite paintings ever - see post from a couple of weeks ago) which he refers to as “the most infernal piece of clap-trap ever painted”, I whole-heartedly agree with his views on art as being first and foremost a means of cultivating the artist’s own spiritual nature and that the essence of any great work of art is not found in its fidelity to representation of the outward appearance of the subject but, rather, to its fidelity to that divine inspiration that comes from within the artist. Knowledge and skill are requisite for the making of any art, for we cannot truly express ourselves without being fluent in the visual language, but I believe that the artist should use their craft to bring forth that unique essence that is inside of them and them alone and, in the process, learn something about who they truly are as well as help others to see their own true nature.

All else is “clap-trap”.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Nothing Lasts Forever (oil on canvas, 2017)

Back in 2008, I was feeling ambitious and stretched a big canvas, the biggest I’d ever attempted to paint on. Inspired by something I’d observed whilst out running late in the day, I had made a little pastel sketch of a puddle in a muddy, recently-harvested potato field, with a sunset sky above the horizon and reflected in the puddle. I thought the sketch was brilliant and that it had potential for a great painting so I proceeded to paint it on my big canvas.

I worked on it for months. Every day, for hours, week after week after week, I piled paint onto that canvas (so much paint!) as I tried in vain to bring my vision to fruition. In the end, I capitulated. The surface of the canvas had become so built up with paint it was no longer workable and I’d lost all faith in myself. (Not to mention the stress over having wasted what was probably hundreds of dollars worth of paint!) I pulled the canvas off of the stretchers and threw it away.

With the help of my innate tenacity, I eventually recovered my confidence, stretched a new canvas and had at it again. “This one will be successful.”, I thought. I’d learned from my mistakes. Alas, it was not to be. Months later, with my paint supply depleted and my self-esteem vanquished, I pulled the canvas off the stretchers and tossed it into the waste bin.

I stretched a new canvas on those stretcher bars but, realizing that I hadn’t yet acquired the skills to be able to handle such a large image, I leaned the canvas up against the wall in the corner of the studio where it has remained these past eight years, with its back to me, defying me to attempt to paint on it again.

Then, this image came to me, initially as a tiny (seriously, it’s no more than 2” square) pastel sketch which I found on the floor of the studio, having not even remembered making it. (I do a lot of little pastel color studies, especially late at night, and they end up scattered about the studio on tables and shelves, taped to the wall or, apparently, on the floor.) The large canvas happened to be the perfect dimensions for this image and I felt, having made well over a hundred paintings in the preceding eight years, that I was up for the challenge.

It came together fairly quickly – five or six painting sessions of about four hours each – and I’m quite pleased with it, not to mention the satisfaction of finally having that large canvas become a painting. Things happen in their own time. The universe has a plan. If we’re patient enough, and attentive, we get to watch it unfold.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Once Our Storm Has Passed, Bathed in Peace and Light (oil on canvas, 2017)

I first saw JMW Turner’s “The Slave Ship” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston decades ago. It has always been one of my favorite paintings in that museum and I’ve spent countless hours standing in front of it – admiring it, studying it and just being awestruck by it. My favorite Turner paintings have always been the ones in which the forms dissolve into a dense cloud of atmosphere and light. In January 2004, I made a trip down to New Haven to see the Turner collection at the Yale Center for British Art. The Turners are on the fourth floor in the front corner. In order to get to them, one must first walk through the John Constable collection. I was only vaguely familiar with Constable’s work. (Whilst in college, I was working on a landscape painting that had clouds in it and my painting teacher suggested that I look at Constable and Jacob Van Ruisdael, which I did, but only through reproductions in books.) As I walked through the Constable collection that morning in New Haven, I was struck by a large painting at the end of the gallery. I approached it and, as I began to take it in, I was completely overcome with emotion. My knees gave out and I dropped to the floor as tears rolled down my cheeks. (I later read that Delacroix had a similar experience upon first seeing Constable’s “The Hay Wain” in the Louvre in 1824.)

The painting was Constable’s “Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames – Morning After a Storm”. It was at that moment I saw my destiny and decided to commit myself to painting.

I bought two books about Constable’s life and work that morning before leaving the museum (and a refrigerator magnet – I couldn’t resist!) and several more in the months to come. “Hadleigh Castle” was painted in 1829, following the death of his beloved wife Maria, based on a sketch that he had made whilst on their honeymoon twelve years earlier. Constable’s love for Maria was profound. They fell in love in 1809, but had to wait seven years before they could be together as their union was opposed my Maria’s grandfather, who was also her family’s benefactor. For seven years they kept their love a secret, seeing one another for only brief periods, oftentimes months apart, communicating via clandestine letters in between. I used to wonder how he was even able to paint whilst drowning in the depths of what must have been an unbearable grief. But perhaps it was the work that kept his head above water.

Although contemporaries (both born in 1776), Constable and Turner seemed to have antithetical approaches to painting the landscape. Both were keenly interested in capturing light and atmosphere, but whereas Constable’s approach was to strive for a fidelity to the natural appearance of the objects in the landscape as a means of suggesting the light and atmosphere, Turner attempted (well, succeeded, really) to paint the light and atmosphere themselves, as if they were tangible forms. For years I’ve tried to reconcile this dichotomy, both in my mind and my work. This painting is as close as I’ve come.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

It Won't Always Be Like This
(oil on canvas, 2017)

I’ve always been a fan of instrumental music, whether classical, jazz, rock, metal, or new age. In fact, I spent many years playing in an instrumental rock band when I was younger. People would often come up to me at shows and say something along the lines of: “You are guys are great, but why aren’t there any words?”

I had a wonderful drawing teacher in college, the printmaker Elizabeth Peak. I had seen quite a bit of her work and most of it was landscape, or landscape with man-made structures in it, but no figures. I asked one day why there weren’t any people in her pictures and she said, “As soon as you put a figure in the picture, it becomes a narrative.” This made me think about music and how as soon as you add lyrics to it, it, too, becomes a narrative.

I love the way that pure music, devoid of words or narrative, can elicit a multitude of emotions through the use of sound, texture, rhythm, timbre, volume, harmony and tempo. Painting can do the same thing with color, shape, texture, value, rhythm, scale and line. But it’s been difficult for me to free myself from the tether to representation without feeling self-consciously self-indulgent. Gradually, though, I’ve developed an increasing dissatisfaction with representation in my work and more and more have become enamoured of the ability of the paint to express my personality without describing objects. I think the development of a personal mode of expression (in any of the arts) shouldn’t be forced, but should evolve naturally. As we become dissatisfied with the efficacy of the tried-and-true methods to convey our feelings and ideas, we are forced out of necessity to cut a new path through the forest.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Beyond the Horizon (oil on canvas, 2016)

As our lives play out, many of us have a tendency to fall into the habit of playing certain roles. Whether it’s a child or a parent, an engineer or a chef, a football fan or a saxophone player, a vegetarian, an intellectual, a hunter, a Christian, an employee, a neighbor, etc.., we look outside ourselves for our identity. It’s easy to do and I’m certainly guilty of it myself, but in so doing, we might lose touch with our true, inner identity – that thing that makes each of us uniquely ourselves.

We can see a similar phenomenon in painting, where many paintings get their identity by trying to be something else: a landscape, a bowl of fruit, a horse, a king, a sailboat, etc., and we can forget that a painting’s true identity is ultimately just an arrangement of shapes, colors, lines and textures.

The original inspiration for this image came whilst looking at a very small section of an earlier painting. With the subject matter removed, the image became pure colour and form, without attempting to describe something that it was not, and yet I felt that it conveyed something very personal. So, I developed the idea into this painting, which took on a life of its own once I commenced working on it.

I admit, there is a certain resemblance to some kind of landscape. The top portion of the painting, being similar in value throughout, with no hard edges, suggests empty space and atmosphere, whilst the bottom portion, with it’s antithetical attributes (strong value contrasts and hard edged shapes), suggest density and solidity. As a result, the border where they meet can easily be read as some sort of “horizon”. (It would be a very different painting, indeed, if it were turned upside down!)

I look forward to continuing to exploring this method of working and hopefully, in the process, get closer to my own true identity.

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Face On Which Time Makes But Little Impression
(oil on canvas, 2016)

This is an idea, inspired by one of my all-time favorite paragraphs in the English language (and from whence the title comes), that I have tried to paint (and failed miserably, I might add) at least three times over the past decade – that nebulous time when day and night, light and darkness, merge and the inevitable feeling of nostalgia elicited (at least in me) during that period.

I’ve begun to paint more freely and let go of topographical description so I recently decided to have another go at this image. I’m quite pleased with it and in looking at it once it was finished, I realized why all of my earlier attempts had failed. I had focused my attention on painting an unkempt, overgrown field, a sunset sky and trees – none of which the painting is actually about.

As Memories Fade (oil on canvas, 2016)

One of the important aspects of my artistic process is the concept of plastic (or three-dimensional) space in an image that is essentially flat. Like many artists, I am constantly trying to defy the flatness of the canvas or paper and create the illusion that the image is three-dimensional. Inherent in the struggle is the dichotomy between mass (solid form) and volume (empty space), i.e. the “form” and the “formless”. The shapes, colors, values and textures within an image can suggest either solid matter or empty space, neither of which can exist without the other. This dichotomy exists in the universe, as well. All solid form is surround by emptiness. You can see this easily enough when looking into the night sky and observing the vast emptiness between stars, solar systems and galaxies, but this same emptiness exists even at the the smallest conceivable scale. The same vast emptiness that separates the stars also separates sub-atomic particles. Even the most solid forms are comprised mostly of empty space. And as time marches on all matter changes. The tiniest seed can become a towering tree and mountain can be reduced to dust. Stars die and galaxies are formed out of nothingness.

I’ve realized over the past year that some of the growing dissatisfaction I’ve felt with some of my older work is that the boundaries between areas that appear as solid forms and areas that appear as empty space were sometimes drawn too clearly; that oftentimes the solid forms were given the appearance of permanence and the emptiness a transient quality. People who see my work, especially locals, remark how, by painting certain recognizable structures (old houses, barns, etc.) I have immortalized them. I have often thought about how many of the structures that were subjects for my paintings over the past decade are no longer standing, but live on in my paintings.

But the universe is in a state of constant flux and nothing lasts forever. Not even memories.