The Goldilocks Zone

Detail, background in progress of my most recent still life

Detail of background, in progress, from my most recent still life

To continue the train of thought from my last post, I’m working on a modest still life, very simple, painting it at Goldilocks speed, not too rushed but not too cautious, either. If I can generalize an area of varied color into a single hue, I’ll do it, and save the detail work for later, or leave it, or I might linger as long as it takes on certain details.  While I’ve been working on this painting, my mind has felt restfully attentive to the quality of the paint I’m applying as much as the image I’m trying to create. I’m working from a photograph I took of a small pewter sugar bowl in our kitchen, and I’m sticking to the narrow depth of field in the shot, which blurs the background slightly. It’s my version of photorealism, though it won’t pass for a photograph up close. I’m simply being straightforward about the artifacts of a shot taken at a certain aperture setting. I almost always use my own photography when I paint an image, sometimes working from multiple shots of a subject in order to get what I want. I had a conversation recently over lunch with Rick Harrington about visibly “pushing paint around.” Rick’s sense was that being faithful to a photograph was antithetical to his love of how paint feels as you apply it and how paint is what a painting is really about. Working from a photograph feels constraining to him, and takes his focus away from the paint itself. Clement Greenburg would approve. I went away feeling as if I disagreed, though not entirely, but without being able to pin down why the conversation left me ambivalent.

I’m happy if I’m working economically, getting more out of the paint than I seem to be putting into it. I keep the process as simple-minded and transparent as I can.  The painters I usually respond to most enthusiastically show me exactly what was happening as the painter worked: everything seems to be there on the surface in Fairfield Porter or Neil Welliver or Jenny Saville, which makes the final result so much more remarkable when the image clicks into place, despite how little precise detail the painter is actually rendering. You can track their effort and you can see how they did what they did, though when you stand back you see more, it seems, than the effort they invested. There are no tricks in the magic act. It’s just paint on a surface, and yet it’s also a scene that evokes all sorts of reactions as you forget that it’s paint. The tension is there between seeing the paint and seeing the scene, and the more I can see how simply and directly the painter created the image, the more interesting the tension between paint and image becomes.

Sometimes, for me, this means being very true to the source I’m using, almost always one of my own photographs–though if I get too obsessed with matching what I see, the painting dies by a thousand brushstrokes. Sometimes doing it properly means taking big liberties and dashing off a painting in a single day, where the energy and the evidence of gesture in the paint are paramount. It all depends on where I achieve a sense of flow at the time: the Goldilocks Zone, not too hot, not too cool, not too fast, not too slow, with paint that’s not too thick, and not too thin. All these technical qualities somehow convey life, if they’re properly aligned while I paint. It really is about the quality of the paint, even though paint isn’t the first thing a viewer sees. It’s all about the feel of the work as it moves along to the metronome of its own pace. The look of it–when I stand back away from the painting–serves mostly as confirmation, or a reality check, of what I felt as I applied the paint, when I was too close to it to see if I was revealing the image in the way I wanted. I’m convinced that the feeling of the execution finds its way subconsciously into the paint. (Chardin said, “I paint with feelings, not colors.”) My view is that the state of mind and heart I’m in when I apply the paint remains there in the quality of the medium itself, the way clothing can absorb a scent from the air. It’s part of the invisible vitality of a painting, the feeling of the painter transferred into the physical object–not in a sentimental way, but “feeling” in the sense of pleasure and the serene thrill that arises from a conviction that you’re doing something new and fresh, in its own modest way, even though you’re using techniques you’ve used for years or decades, for that matter. It’s always a discovery of something I already think I know.

In this case, part of the pleasure of rendering an out-of-focus background is that I map it first into flat areas of general color, going from one value to the next lighter or darker, with clear edges between the areas. I end up with a tiny patch of canvas that looks like a miniature Rothko or a flat abstract with organic lobes and jigsaw puzzle curves from Frederick Hammersley or Braque or even Klee. I look at it, completely forgetting what the camera was actually pointed at, and I watch myself choose very subtle colors simply on their own merit without trying to exactly match what I see in the photograph, instinctively, constructing patterns behind what will become a little sugar bowl in the foreground. In the current painting, I’ve changed the dominant red in the napkin under the sugar bowl to Prussian blue, so I’m depending heavily on what I see in the shot, but changing it to get the color I want. As I go along, I’ll work those flat shapes into more gradually modeled areas that become the final image. But behind that finished work is the structure, the abstraction that preceded it, like a blueprint, where I create a whole new set of color harmonies (apart from whatever precise colors were there in the photograph) as the foundation of the image a viewer will actually see when the work’s done. It will be warmer, or cooler, or just different from the source in some other way, but if it works, it will be as persuasive as an image of actual life. When the work is going well, few things feel as good as simply pushing paint onto canvas–to be honest, mostly I’m pulling it from the brush, the old-school, pre-Expressionist way. (Van Gogh was an excellent pusher: his brushstrokes look like cresting waves, shoved forward.) The physical act of making an object that takes up space in the world is elemental and fulfilling, and what seems the purely physical pleasure of making a painting is, for me, the best barometer of how much a painting will convey things that don’t seem physical at all. My philosophy is that the nebulous feeling, the mood that emerges through the act of painting, is the bulk of what a painting conveys. The ostensible subject of a representational painting conveys a state of mind and heart–a state of awareness, the mindfulness of the one who was painting it. Ultimately, that “feeling” is at the core of what gets conveyed and vicariously felt, by the viewer, as the “world” of a particular artist.

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