Sunday, March 27, 2016

On Seeing

"It is harder to see than it is to express."  Robert Henri

There is probably little argument that one of the biggest challenges facing a painter is to see the subject in a way that will allow him or her to translate the vision into the two dimensional space.  Too often the mind carries preconceptions that are attached to images, and thus, when we sit down to paint the tree before us, often we end up painting the tree that is in our mind, the tree we first drew as children - big solid brown trunk, round green leafiness.  It takes effort to focus enough to see the changes in tone, to detect slight temperature differences, or to recognize that some lines are lost and blend into another element.

I have spent months of study trying to acquire better vision for painting, and I recall moments when suddenly it became clear to me: driving down the freeway I would marvel at the tonal changes in the passing trees, the delicate differences that made them real; I witnessed how dark were the areas of wet pavement, how sky-like the flections.  I imagined mixing the color to match what I was seeing.  This seeing went on for miles, almost a hallucination of sorts, though I assume hallucination to mean seeing something that is not there, rather than seeing what is there but what most people don't really see.  But like driving while hallucinating, it was probably not the safest way to navigate a vehicle down the highway, and I try to do it less, unless I am alone on a long straight road.

But trying to see has become an exercise I work on frequently, and though I have lately been caught up in business that does not allow me the time or leisure to paint, I thought that on my latest trip I would take along my sketchbook and use the idle moments for some drawing.  It did not happen.

I found myself in southwest Iowa in mid-March, and I was surprised that winter still dominated the land; it was cold and bleak, with no budding trees, no spring flowers, no green to be found.  At first I tried to think of a word that would best describe the color I saw, and the closest I came up with was "dun".  A very bland, dull color, sapped of life by the hard winter.  Undulating fields of cornstalks chopped off near the ground, dead and beige and unremarkable.  Every little farm had its silos, iconic in a way, and I thought they might make a good subject.  But as I drove I found there were few places to pull off the road, no public parks or areas set aside for recreation: do Iowans just drive like hell through the snowstorm and get where they are going, all business and no pleasure?

At any rate, I tried hard to turn on my "vision" and found that it was unavailable to me.  For the life of me, I couldn't see the beauty that I was certain surrounded me.  I took a few snapshots as a record of my journey, but I was surprised by how uninspired I was.  Perhaps it was a reaction against the lingering winter.  More likely my mind was too preoccupied with another sort of vision, a seeing for the truth in numbers, a cataloguing of physical properties of the real estate I was investigating.  The demands on my vision were great - "see" as much as possible in a very short time, and there was no room left for shifting the vision to the other sort required for painting.  I think the resources of the mind are limited sometimes, and yet I was surprised by how little choice I had in the matter.

Upon my return I pulled up my photos from the trip, and with a little enhancement the richness of the colors jumped out at me: there was color there all along, and I had been unable to see it.  I hope that in future trips I will be able to see it while there, but in a sort of apology to the beauty that is Iowa, I present at a minimum these photographs as a testament to color.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Two Writers

It has been a long while of no painting at all, and I miss delving daily into the Art Spirit, attempting expression, trying to learn the basic skills of value and temperature and composition and line.  I didn't want to stop; in fact, it feels as if a part of me has been imprisoned and is doing hard time, marking the days on the wall of the cell.  Life has intruded and work demands my attention in a way it hasn't in several years, and I am surprised to find that my brain has switched into a gear that does not allow for Art.  All hands are on deck for other kinds of thinking, analytical and exacting and fixed, and there is no impulse to create, nothing but the drone of numbers.

Finally I had to insist that I take an hour, a brief respite in which to squeeze out some paints and quickly scribble out something, anything, just to free those cramped muscles for some exercise.  Those very few of you who actually wander into this blog to see what I may have been dabbling at will know that I enjoy trying for passing resemblance in small portraits, and here are two more dead writers, with a small scrap of their work to accompany:

Ma pauvre muse, hélas! qu'as-tu donc ce matin?
Tes yeux creux sont peuplés de visions nocturnes,
Et je vois tour à tour réfléchis sur ton teint
La folie et l'horreur, froides et taciturnes.
Le succube verdâtre et le rose lutin
T'ont-ils versé la peur et l'amour de leurs urnes?
Le cauchemar, d'un poing despotique et mutin
T'a-t-il noyée au fond d'un fabuleux Minturnes?
Je voudrais qu'exhalant l'odeur de la santé
Ton sein de pensers forts fût toujours fréquenté,
Et que ton sang chrétien coulât à flots rythmiques,
Comme les sons nombreux des syllabes antiques,
Où règnent tour à tour le père des chansons,
Phoebus, et le grand Pan, le seigneur des moissons.

My poor Muse, alas! what ails you today?
Your hollow eyes are full of nocturnal visions;
I see in turn reflected on your face
Horror and madness, cold and taciturn.
Have the green succubus, the rosy elf,
Poured out for you love and fear from their urns?
Has the hand of Nightmare, cruel and despotic,
Plunged you to the bottom of some weird Minturnae?
I would that your bosom, fragrant with health,
Were constantly the dwelling place of noble thoughts,
And that your Christian blood would flow in rhythmic waves
Like the measured sounds of ancient verse,
Over which reign in turn the father of all songs, 
Phoebus, and the great Pan, lord of harvest.

(from les Fleurs du Mals)

Then one afternoon - the rain had stopped but the clouds had not broken and it was turning cold again - it was about dusk and we were galloping along an old road in the river bottom; it was dim and narrow under the trees and we were galloping when my mule shied and swerved and stopped, and I just did catch myself before I went over his head; and then we saw the thing hanging over the middle of the road from a limb.  It was an old Negro man, with a rim of white hair and with his bare toes pointing down and his head on one side like he was thinking about something quiet.
(from The Unvanquished)