No scumbling. No scraping. All prime.

Top to bottom. How Welliver painted.

Top to bottom. How Welliver painted, from Realists at Work.

As promised, here are interesting comments from Neil Welliver, this time from an interview in The Art of the Real, edited by the poet Mark Strand. As with the previous Q/A, some of what he says I listen to a little more skeptically than when I first read these books. He criticizes 19th century art on terms that seem to partly apply to his own painting, it seems, which strikes me as “systematic and structured”—isn’t almost all painting structured?—but in a good way. I understand what he’s saying: the painters he dislikes respond less to individual and particular qualities of a scene and do whatever they’ve learned to do in a uniform way. They become tree-painting factories, and don’t need to observe actual trees in order to do it. He says he responds to the particularity of a given place so that “generalities are wiped out of your life” but his method, reducing his technique to such a limited selection of colors, tends to create a “feel” when you look at one of his pictures, common to all of them. So his style generalizes areas of an image because of the way it simplifies what he sees: generalizing within a discreet area of color is what he does. (That isn’t what he means of course but I can here ironies in what he says now.) The particular variations between one Welliver and another seem slighter than what all his paintings have in common, which is what he learned from Abstract Expressionism. Even so, reading these interviews is a great way to understand a little better what you’re seeing with the Wellivers on display right now at the National Academy Museum:

In Maine there is an extraordinary clarity. You can look for a mile but objects seem right before your face; you can identify them. I’m interested in the character of the light—that northern flat light—where the sun doesn’t get very high. A lot of it is geologically young. The upheaval is still apparent, the gouging of all the glaciers, all of that. I paint what would, in terms of theater, be considered innocuous and banal—ordinary places. I could not paint where the landscape doesn’t interest me, where it’s not complicated enough, where it’s been too ordered by people.”

Hudson River pictures look to me procedural, systematic, structured, controlled, and prefabricated.

That’s what I really dislike about Church and Cole. Cole in particular. He had a procedure for painting spruce trees. Scumble, color, scumble. Chug-a-chug-a-chug-a-chug. He could put in a thousand spruce trees in a day; and they’re really like an idea of a spruce tree, not a spruce tree observed and understood. That doesn’t interest me at all. I don’t have a catalog of makrs at all. Sometimes when the painting gets stuck I’ll say, “Oh, shit, the last time I painted a tree I got it; it did it like that.” But it never works twice.

There is something interesting in the Castaneda books. The main character talks about places of power. Each one is the locus of some contact that one has with another world. I find if you paint and get involved in a place and study it and develop some understanding of it and hence affection for it, then the place becomes unbelievably particular. And there is no generality anymore. Generalities are wiped out of your life. But you discover that you were educated to deal with generalities. So that part of your intelligence gets laid aside and suddenly you are a device through which material can move . . .

Particularity is extraordinarily important, central to my work. But that particularity cannot be gotten by merely recording. It has nothing to do with putting down everything you see. It’s a particularity that has to do with, one would hope, primal qualities.

I paint from top to bottom in my paintings, and every day I finish just so much of it. Very unconventional way to paint. But it’s helpful because when you reach the bottom you’re finished.”

I make a large drawing from the small drawing and paintings

(done at the site) and then I puncture the large sheet of paper, the actual size of the canvas, with a sewing needle and transfer it to the canvas. It places things. I take great liberties after the drawing, liberties in the name of intensity.

I’ve been using the same eight colors for about ten years. They’re basic. No earth tones.

I paint seven hours in the studio and there’s little procedure involved in my painting. There’s no scumbling. There’s no scraping. Nothing. The paintings are prime. Every time I touch a canvas I make a form, so when I talk about seven hours of painting, I’m talking about at least six hours of really touching the canvas. And I work on only one at a time, I can’t work on two. I have to garner all my energies and focus them to work. The way I paint is totally focused and intense and complete—every mark is a form that’s not going to be covered up later. I don’t revise anything. I don’t go back. I don’t go over it. I go down the canvas to the bottom and out, and that’s it. I never go back. There’s no rethinking. The changes that are made by adjusting what happens there with what you do here, not by going back. When things don’t suit me, I just abandon them

The real problem with scale is that of trying to seduce a person into really feeling that he can walk into your canvas. And eight feet seems big enough and much bigger doesn’t add anything to it. But a much smaller size will cut people out.

Fairfield Porter came to my place one time, and it was the first time he’d ever seen a painting of mine in progress; the upper part was finished and the lower-part empty canvas. He said, “That simply can’t be done, can’t be done.” And I said, “But Fairfield, I’m doing it.”

I think about my painting a lot, but there’s a point at which it becomes mysterious. I do it, and I don’t really know what the hell’s going on. (In the woods) there’s a kind of motion that’s dictated by the wind and other forces. And suddenly an animal will move. And you’ll see that he’s not subject to the dictated motion of the forest, because he has the stuff to resist it, to go against it. That’s very exciting. And suddenly there’s a curious separation of that which is influenced and that which controls its own direction, like a deer.

You could plumb that comment for years and never get to the bottom of it. In a good way. That one’s a keeper and it goes to the heart of painting, I think.


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