Saturday, August 16, 2008

what I did on my summer vacation

I devoted a week to painting and nothing but painting. No phones, email or design work.
I had some errands to accomplish but they all ended up fading away as the need to paint took over.
I had a staycation...

My goal was to do two paintings a day which is easy to do on a long summer day, given enough focus, materials and luck. I was determined to seek ordinary views while keeping an eye out for any view that sent a thrill down my spine.

The only devil taunting me all week was an awlful head cold and a cold fog that sat on San Francisco all week.

Fast forward to Thursday. I sat down at my easel way, way up on top of a mountain next to Henry Coe State Park on a beautiful sunny day. I found a tree with a huge nest (or something) in it. No one is around. I load a brush up with paint and start working and soon am met with the usual voices.

"I can't do this. This is too hard. The view is too complicated. I don't know how to do this."

The conscious voices start to take over. "Just do it, don't think about it. It is ok. It doesn't matter one way or the other. It's a lovely day. Just enjoy yourself."

"I can't do this. I don't know what I am doing. I could take a vacation and just relax like other people. Why do I always have to work so hard?"

I have a list of all the paintings I have done or attempted. It's big. I haven't counted it but it's probably about 600 paintings. (I don't keep track of drawings or watercolors.) Some of these have been destroyed...wasn't it Wayne Thiebaut who said that it took 12 paintings for every one that turns out?

But even with all this experience, it's always starting over. There is no part of me that says "You can pull this off." Experience buys me about a 40% chance that I will finish. There is always a risk that I will say "I just can't do this" and pack up and move on to another view knowing that the days are short and if I move I may run out of daylight.

When the 'devils' are taunting me I think of all the other landscape artists I have worked with. Some don't have this problem due to a distinct method. But for some of these artists, their paintings all look the same. Good but the same. While mine are all over the map: many bad but an occasional brilliant gem.

I also realized that it's not the process of painting I like (although I do like being outdoors). Painting is work. What I like is the finished piece. "I did that. I pulled it off." So that's the same payoff as running a race or doing anything you didn't know you could do.

When I was in college I intended to be a great artist. It was easy to do good work. If I had more acclaim in my adult life, would it be easier to believe in my talent and then possibly make better paintings? Sometimes I pretend that I am a famous artist and say "How would I proceed if I had all the time, money and exhibition opportunities in the world?"

In a painting by an artist like Sargent or Picasso, you can see the self-confidence and elan in the brushstrokes. The confidence to dash something off. And people like confident paintings because it's a way we like to feel.

On the other side, a painting such as a late self-portrait by Rembrandt contains all his emotions right there on the canvas. When I saw it, (in Edinborough?), it made me tear up. It's in the eyes, in the color, somewhere the painting holds this information and then sends a little packet of information to the eye of the sensitive viewer. All great paintings send a little packet of information if you know how to be still and receive it.