Revisiting / Revision

One of the biggest downsides of the amount of time I’ve spent in school is that it’s left a paucity of energy and inclination toward painting. I am no longer in school now (it’s complicated) and I am working full time, and it’s wonderful. While I’m still exhausted and have little free time (I’m sure I’ll adjust), I have a much greater motivation toward my studio now that my free time is actually free and not stolen from something else I should be doing.

I’ve had this painting hanging out on my easel for an embarrassingly long time. I started it in a fit of energy back in February 2011, when the release of the new Radiohead album “The King of Limbs” prompted a renewed obsession with all things Radiohead, including “Hail to the Thief.” Increasingly, a lot of my art is a big love affair with music, and I remember distinctly that this painting started when I was obsessing over the song “Where I End and You Begin.”

(Ace video by Juan Pablo Etcheverry – direct link.)

I was going for something complex and writhing, a seething, teeming entanglement of inside and out, other and self becoming one, resonating with those tight drums and extraordinary bass line. Later, I was also thinking about a particularly fascinating reaction in organic chemistry (the nucleophilic aromatic substitution on 2,4-dinitrobromobenzene with hydrazine in ethanol), where the volatility and reactivity of the compounds we used led to uncontrollable side-chain reactions. Our lovely transparent yellow and orange reactants, initially iridescent purple when mixed, became tar-like conglomerates of nitrogen-clumped impurities.

It was such a fitting metaphor for intense interpersonal relationships that become messy and destructive: two entities that are too much alike, too violently reactive, too susceptible to cataclysmic interference from uncontrollable forces; both turn from something pure and inherently open – even luminous – to a singular existence inextricably bonded in toxicity, so dense and dark that no light gets in.

Trying to push toward that exact reaction, I wanted this painting to be highly-contrasting orange and purples. I abandoned it when I over-mixed it all toward a fittingly muddy cadmium red-orange-brown, and its fate was sealed when I noticed the compositional and color similarity to a painting I did years ago.

I’m not done with this idea, though, nor even this painting. The opening lyrics of the Radiohead song speak to the opposite, to not being able to connect and feeling fundamentally separated:

There’s a gap in between,
There’s a gap where we meet,
Where I end and you begin

At first, I interpreted it as dealing with death, literally ending and not being able to connect with someone living. There was more to it, though, an ominous story that hinted at a complicated past and the severing of something that was once intensely linked. The obsessive tone and repetition of the closing lyrics (I will eat you alive / There’ll be no more lies) speak to a level of connectedness that feels essential for survival, a prehistoric, preternatural force evoked from the time when “the dinosaurs roam the earth.” And yeah, love or addiction could certainly feel that way too. I still haven’t sorted what this song is actually about, but I know exactly how it feels, and whatever circumstances or forces brought about the feeling are defined by their relentlessness.

I decided the painting was too blobby and forgiving, that it needed to be darker, with stronger contrast and definition of space. I wanted it to be sharper and better attenuated to the unforgiving severity of being dragged around by one’s heart and need. I took a typical tack, essentially drawing back over the surface in dark blue to redefine the structure of the field.

I am incredibly glad that I’ve started taking photos during the intermediate phases of paintings because I can see that I had what I wanted for a little bit when it was just blue. Then either because I felt too dark (it was a gorgeous sunny day in July, and my heart was full of love and summer) or because I got impatient and wanted to start defining the lights, I went at it with cadmium yellow. When that turned to a bright green, I went with it, thinking, “Sure, why not?”

I think I got blown off course, moving into something more generically “colorful” and balanced, shying away from what I was really thinking about. The green is letting the light in, giving breathing space, relenting. It’s fine, and maybe it could even become pleasant, but that’s not what this painting is about.

This painting’s current state points to all the areas where my studio practice is out of sync. The most obvious problem is that I’m not actually processing emotions, inspirations, and concepts at the time when they’re predominant in my life. Years after the heartbreak, frustration, and existential angst that drove me to begin this painting, it feels artificial to go back and roll around in the past tense now.

The problem that concerns me most, though, is the glaringly obvious disconnect between the ideas and the material / technical addressing of them. For a painting dealing with uncontrollable forces, I’m overworking everything toward a clean and well-defined resolution. The colors are all wrong, though I can cut myself a little slack here because I was working at it as an underpainting, trying to sort the composition into general lights and darks. But then I lost the plot.

It is my hope that beginning a much more regular, invested studio practice in the coming months will help me get back in touch with myself as a painter. I used to go at things openly, spontaneously, carried away in a fit of feeling that sputtered out to completion. I’ve let my inner editor come in too strong, revising when I mean to revisit. I think it’s time for her to take a holiday and give the say back to the painter.

Mutability and Revision

The more I draw, the more I learn about painting. That statement is both blindingly obvious and paradoxically elusive for me. I am about to finish my current sketchbook (so expect to see more drawings soon), and through it, I’ve learned incredible amounts about structuring a painting and attaching ideas to forms.

One aspect of oil painting that I’ve been reluctant to embrace is its infinite mutability. I used to resist making any changes to paintings, preferring to map out a composition at the inception and more or less stick with it to the end. More often, I would discover a compositional fault that I couldn’t get past and abandon the painting entirely, intending eventually to get back to it, but almost never doing so.

Grad school was very useful for loosening up my resistance to make changes, as in-progress critiques helped me identify the parts of compositions that were resolving problematically for viewers or in some other way failing to provide the appropriate structure for the ideas I was trying to layer onto images. Unfortunately, however, it also let me find a way to avoid having to make changes, as I moved into water media and embraced the unpredictable, fluid shapes formed by water in my ink paintings.

Now I’m trying to use what I’ve learned about structure from drawing to enact greater control over my oil paintings. I have a tendency to sketch out a vague form using washy lines, then plunge right into modeling curves and shapes without stepping back to consider the overall composition, scale, or bigger movements of the canvas until it’s too late. More importantly, I need to ask myself if what I’m painting actually matches what I’m thinking about, or if instead I’m getting lost in some lovely swoops that will ultimately feel shallow or frustrating to me.

I have this big blue painting that has been sitting next to my easel for months. I was hesitant to move forward on it because something felt imbalanced about the composition. I had intended for this painting to be a meditation on rippling, folding matter, a sort of undulating consideration of this idea from physics that everything is made of something, and there’s no such thing as nothingness, as even space has certain properties and forces to it. Less abstractly, when you look at a flower and see shadows, you’re not seeing darkness or absence, but rather a part of the flower that is occluded, yet present. Each petal has both a top side and an underside, just as curves in nature have insides and outsides that are part of the same surface.

I wasn’t getting that feeling from this painting as it was, and I was frustrated that it felt like a bunch of impulsive decisions, without the organizing principles I’d intended.

It’s always with some trepidation that one revises a composition, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with my first stab at this painting, in light of how easy it should be to change.

Using cadmium yellow and darker blue, I started essentially correcting the areas that stuck out to me. I thought more about the central idea, that everything comes from something, in terms of existence, spirituality, matter, physics, math, psychology, and on and on, thinking through what movements of this form could evoke these sensations. I knew I wanted the form to be more centralized and inwardly-focused, rather than jutting off the edges haphazardly as it had done.

It’s not accidental that the painting started looking more and more like a greenish-colored rose, as I’ve always used roses as a sort of shorthand for postmodern introspection and layers of meaning folding out from themselves. My undergraduate thesis project used details of roses and other organic forms to get at some of these same ideas, so I shouldn’t be surprised to come full circle and use them again, with different inflection. I think of dimensions as petals, so a treatment of some unfolding facets of existence logically follows blossoming flowers and wave forms.

I don’t know if I’m done revising this painting’s composition yet, though I’ve lived with it for a while and find I am mostly satisfied that I can work with this iteration, with small adjustments that will be sorted out while painting. It’s fun to consider an object in flux, wobbling toward what it will become.

I’m planning for the color to shift toward teal, with creamy highlights that pick up the yellow, and deep blues and browns that push the depths into sharper, clearer contrast.

I’m excited about what this painting could become, and I’m both relieved and encouraged by the revisions I’ve made. I haven’t typically kept track of revisions in the past, as I think there exists the risk that previous versions looked better and I’ll be able to see the ways I’ve ruined something good. I think the value of discovery from change is worth the potential ego pitfalls, and I must learn not to regret the changes that insist on being made.