a few thoughts on painting

I’m facilitating a painting workshop this week. There’s an old cliche that we teach in order to learn, and this week it’s definitely true. I’ve been in a rut — blocked by an obstacle that’s partly the fault of a vexing project but mostly of my mind’s making. And it’s been frustrating to be in the studio because I’m not making the work I want to be making. 

On Saturday, in my workshop presentation, I focused a lot on strategies for making landscape painting. The Impressionists (and their followers to this day) were very good marketers and have created an enduring impression (see what I did there?) of what it means to make a painting — painting on site, using a specific color theory, making paintings in one go, etc. While there’s nothing wrong with the Impressionist traction and methods, it’s limiting, and the most exciting landscape painting being made today certainly isn’t made in the Impressionist manner. Great paintings come from memory, from drawing, from photo references. Great paintings are made in the studio. Great landscape painting collage elements from multiple places. They’re often poetic and unconcerned with the specificity of a place.

Of course, I have my own fixed ideas about how to make a painting — the ghosts that stop me from being fully engaged in my ongoing process of becoming a painter — and they’re as limiting as any historic movement. This morning, in response to a workshop participant’s query, but also as some self-directed therapy, I offered the following thoughts about the painting process:

Think more broadly about beginnings and endings: It can be a trap to think that we can make a painting in a linear beginning to end fashion within a set amount of time (this is the ‘assignment mindset’ established in art school — or any school — but it’s not how we make art). My best paintings often develop over months of working/rest/working/rest process. I’ve learned to enter the studio with the mindset of ‘beginning new work’ and ‘finishing work.’ Some days I’ll start a dozen paintings and set them aside (not to return to them for weeks) and other days I’ll enter the studio with the idea that ‘I’m going to finish five paintings today.’ 

Look at paintings you love and reverse engineer them: artists have a visual language but they also employ strategies of working with materials. Learn from looking closely at painting what the strategies are in the paintings you love. Embrace your unique visual language while using more effective strategies.

Painting isn’t (just) expression; it’s problem solving: Every painting starts with a question or set of questions related to your intentions. Try to articulate those questions before you start (how to depict this space, how to represent blazing light, how to convey the energy of the wind, how to activate the space of the canvas, etc), and reconsider what questions you have when you take breaks to look at the painting. Consider what actions will solve the new problems/questions that arise.

Look more, paint less: painting is a process of balancing action and reflection in a way that serves the painting. Look from a distance at least as much as you actually apply paint.

Stepping away from the query to which I was responding, I’d add two more that are particularly relevant for me right now:

Always start with a feeling: Depiction is one element of painting, but a more powerful element is the feeling conveyed. Paintings that start with feeling end with feeling. Paintings that start with depiction often end up superficial and flat.

Trust the material: When I’m over controlling in my use of the material — from a sense of scarcity or because I’m trying to use it in a way that’s not embodied — the painting always fails. When I trust that the material will lead me to some discovery I succeed more often.

I’m not sure I’ve written my way out of my hole, but it’s good to articulate these strategies and concerns. And I feel better equipped to reenter the studio.

Descriptions of my other Fall/Winter 2022 workshops are listed here.

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