The appetite for paint

Jim Mott's oil of a dog walker he saw in Arizona

Jim Mott’s oil of a dog walker he saw in Arizona

I could write a dozen posts based on my conversation this week with Jim Mott. Knowing me, I probably will eventually, one way or another, but one small point we talked about just surfaced while I was working on something entirely unrelated to painting. We both spoke about work habits and how difficult it can be to paint on a fixed schedule. He has intense resistance before sitting down to paint. He’s told me in the past that he approaches every new painting feeling as if he has to learn all over again how to make a picture, though he knows a wealth of things about how to paint. As painful as it is, he thrives on this sense of flailing at the start, struggling to simply get a grip on what he’s going to do, mark by mark–the instability of that moment seems necessary for getting a purchase on what has to be done each time he sits down to paint. My habits are much different. I have a set of methods that enable me to ignore those uncertainties, up to a point, and they make the earlier stages of building a painting almost routine–with the exception of the first stage, seeing the image I want to paint. That’s when I feel exactly as Jim does. Discovering that image is really the first moment of anxiety and struggle for me. Since I work with photographs I’ve taken, I can spend half a day or most of a day, just trying to compose and capture a picture that will end up as the source for a painting. Jim faces the same uncertainty when he wanders through a landscape looking for what he’s going to paint–and he had a funny story about how, on one of his peregrinations, he used a GPS coordinate generator to find utterly random scenes, and how he forced himself to paint even the most unappetizing views of the region, based on the locations his software calculated. He forced himself to stick with the locations without, as it were, rolling the dice again.

Normally, for me, finding a picture just means working within the slightest variations of light and setting around my own home, involving a few objects I’ve painted before. It’s amazing how difficult this can be, because I need to have some kind of emotional response to what I’m seeing; there has to be something enticing about recreating it in paint, and that’s not easy to inspire, even if I’m simply setting up a still life in an artificial way. It’s never a sure thing. I can even come up with a shot that I believe is exactly what I need but when I begin to paint it, I realize it won’t come together properly, and I abandon the painting. Also, I can lose what felt like a compelling image in the middle of painting it, which is when the struggle returns. There’s a point in almost every painting where I start doing things I don’t know how to do–problems I haven’t had to solve before. I discard far more paintings than I would like, but that moment of deciding that a painting doesn’t work–and it can be even after the painting is finished–is close to the mysterious crux at the heart of what painting is. A painting has to live, which is different from saying a representational image needs to resemble life itself. A painting can be an exact replica of what’s in front of the lens, either an eye’s or a camera’s, but that doesn’t mean it will come alive for a viewer. It needs to do more than simply look real; it needs to feel alive, both as a scene, and as a physical object on a wall. That comes, in my view, from the difficult delight of laboring, with an appetite for the work, hours and days and weeks or months, making a thousand marks, and another thousand, with a sense of wanting the paint itself to convey its own vitality, in addition to the way it persuades the eye that it isn’t simply looking at paint. To be that invested in something as fundamental and physical and mostly subservient as the act of painting is what’s required for the final work to strike others as vital and arresting. But what that life is, the quality of both presence and absence a good painting has, as people themselves do, the way it discloses and offers so much while also giving the sense of withholding just as much, and leaving so much out, unarticulated–there doesn’t seem to be any way of objectifying how this happens, or even describing it. The routines only take me so far, and then I’m as adrift as Jim before he starts working, from start to finish. The best indication that it’s coming together though, is nothing more authoritative than a feeling (which sounds nebulous but isn’t), a sense of anticipation and a willingness to keep working on a particularly tough section until it’s right, a surrender to the terms of what’s beginning to appear as you realize the unique challenge the work represents. Keeping that hunger alive, the appetite to keep applying paint, even when something resists everything you already know how to do, is what eventually makes the painting work. It’s something an individual achieves alone, and can’t be taught, though it’s easy to see its results in all the great paintings of the past. Seeing it in previous paintings is how I realized I wanted to paint in my teens.

2 Responses to “The appetite for paint”

  1. jim mott

    well put, Dave. your insights combined with your ability to articulate them in a richly informed way give you the potential to be a key spokesman for ” the cause” of value and meaning over hype and empty posturing….

  2. Richard Harrington

    The feeling of having lost my way comes in the middle for me. When I’ve furiously and boldly applied anywhere from a few up to a dozen layers of paint, and then for some reason falter. At this point each painting is into unfamiliar territory, but the landscape are the most this way. Fighting you way through is the most difficult challenge of any successful piece, and losing the path is the demise of the piece.

    And paintings that don’t go through that, that come together easily, never have the same appeal to me.