Stooshinoff wisdom

Harry Stooshinoff, 10 Saved Acres, February 20, Acrylic on birch panel

I hope Harry doesn’t mind if I repost most of his latest newsletter. Note his use of the word rubbish. So much of good art depends on chucking that particular quality out, especially prohibitions based on consideration of anything that diminishes the intensity of energy one applies to a painting. His letter is so full of wisdom and expresses so well what it’s like to try and maintain this creative energy in painting. My mom died in April and I’ve spent the past six months, in which I’ve had to pull away from painting quite a bit, thinking about what I want to do as a painter from here on, and I’ve been drawn toward several different paths, without actually getting back to daily work yet. Soon. But I’ve been wanting to work in several modes concurrently and this newsletter offers a lot of encouragement.

Harry talks about this kind of juncture directly. He advises that you do what energizes you, what you most want to see when you are done, not what you think you should be doing based on any other consideration–market, past work, reputation, what other people think, “branding”, whatever. What I admire in Stooshinoff’s painting is how it reflects two kinds of work I’ve deeply loved in the past: Asian art, especially Japanese sumiye painting and Fairfield Porter’s paintings in the 50s and 60s. I’m not sure he considers either of these major influences for his work, but it’s what I recognize through his work. In the background lurks Matisse of course, casting his enormous light-filled shadow, but you don’t get to him from Stooshinoff’s work except through Porter. Mitchell Johnson is another artist doing something very connected to this kind of painting, with Porter and Matisse as a backstory, but without the Asian element for me.

Harry works quickly, very quickly, premier coup, as Dickinson expressed it, and yet his use of value and color convey how light and form in landscape actually looks. That’s the marvel. He’s a loose painter, and you can often see pretty clearly how he makes his marks. There’s no attempt to refine the evidence of his hand.  The application of acrylic flows off his brush in what appear to be spontaneous gestures, but if you drill down into the details you see some very straight lines, hatch marks almost as regular as Durer’s, and exacting precision everywhere, even if some of his hills are stylized, more like karst mounds in China. I don’t think you see this terrain in Canada, but maybe the humpy kames and eskers we have down here south of Lake Ontario are common directly to the north of us on the other side of the lake. That paradox, the marriage of generalized forms and gestural marks with visual exactitude where one area of value ends and another begins reminds me of the paintings Fairfield Porter did when he was clearly using photographs as sources. Stooshinoff works from sketches done immediately in response to a scene that strikes him as arresting.  His work looks abstracted from the actual vision of a landscape, but it’s more a kind of involuntary shorthand without any pretensions: just a man working under the pressure of his passion to convey what he sees, with an urgency to move on to the next moment of looking. It isn’t some sort of transformation of what’s seen into something more interesting or valuable than an original glimpse of an actual hill with a clouded sky overhead. He just wants to be a conduit of what’s already out there, in his own quiet, quick way. Here’s his newsletter:

There really are 1000s of ways to make paintings. And I’m not just talking about the history of art and other people. There are 1000s of ways for YOU and ME to make paintings. Perhaps we think we paint the way we do because we evolved naturally onto this path, this style, and so this is our signature ‘style’ that is somehow essential to our artistic quality and integrity. That may or may not be true, and mostly I think it’s untrue. Artists have been fed lots of rubbish through the decades that, for the most part, they have internalized. Whatever artistic path we stay on is a choice, and it’s a choice we make every day. You can wake up tomorrow and make a different kind of picture. Keep in mind that for years artists feared that their dealers might say something to this effect, “….you look like you’re all over the place and jumping around too much…keep within this style that you’ve made popular and that you’re now known for”. Hmmm…branding, and all that. Again, there is some good sense in this sentiment. Sometimes it’s obvious when an artist is not committed enough and is simply flailing in multiple directions. But, the inverse is so evident as well. Artists should not harness themselves in too tightly, for market reasons, or any other reasons.….if the need is felt, there is always room to explore more, in style, method, direction, or subject.

I usually carry a folded up sheet of typing paper in my breast pocket and a ballpoint pen (a hangover from my teaching days when I’d have to make plenty of reminder notes to myself about items/details that I needed to attend to…..or I’d otherwise forget). On my lunch hours and breaks I would also use these papers to make brief landscape sketches on my drives, that I would later paint from in the evening, while the memory was fresh. I used this method all through my teaching years and I still use it today. These drawings litter my space and are just thrown into a drawer and then at certain times of the year, when the drawings get too numerous, I cut them out, and glue them into books. Mostly, I glue them into books because I kind of like the drawings and don’t really want to just throw them away. These extremely brief drawings, made usually within a minute, served as source material for paintings…and revealed quite a lot of interesting things about method, that I’ll discuss more below.

By the way, making paintings all through my art teaching years was one way I saved my sanity during very busy times, but that’s a story for another time. Teaching is an important and rewarding occupation but it does not offer the same kind of reward as painting….the skills and type of thinking that go into teaching are vastly different from what happens in a painter’s mind. The work is different, and the types of rewards are different. So I think it would be a mistake to think that TEACHING art and MAKING art are very closely related. Way back when, when I was in my 20s, I remember thinking that perhaps a good job for a painter would be a nighttime janitor….and that thought may not have been that far off the mark 🙂

In this November writeup I’d like to suggest that the thinking we do away from the painting is really important, maybe even MORE important than the painting. We make up the rules we follow, and we change, add or subtract, or modify the rules when we feel the need. And when do we feel the need? When our energy for the creative task is perhaps not 100%, or flagging to any noticeable degree. We are the watch-keepers of our creative energy and we can do things to help ourselves. I’m going to point out some of the things I’ve done to keep my energy high, to increase my motivation for painting when I felt the need.

The image below shows the tiny on-site diagram used to make the painting right below. You can see how folded up and mashed the paper is…..the paper is always in my pocket, easy to find, the moment I need it. It doesn’t even matter if there are all kinds of other stuff on the paper (here you see some measurements for a small frame I was making). I only make these drawings if I see something that triggers a response in me. And the drawing only attempts to record the overall composition, and sometimes a few colour notes, which may or may not be followed. A few simple things are committed to memory through the process of making this diagram. There is usually a relationship noted between around 5-10 things that I noticed in the scene….the number of things included is small….usually countable on the fingers of one hand. NOW…why I want to show this, is because a painting made from a source such as this….is WAY different from a painting made entirely on site, or from a photograph, or from invention or memory. A painting made from this source will FEEL different to me than a painting made from a different source, even if sometimes the paintings from different types of sources might look similar. This is really important because it relates to the ENERGY that I bring to the task……and that is really my key interest, and it always will be. Keeping my interest and energy high is the only way to continue with painting.

The painting above was made from the diagram directly above it, and it’s usually best if the painting is made soon after the diagram is made….within the same day preferably. An impression has been committed to memory through the act of being so concentrated during that one minute drawing, and it’s that impression that guides the painting of the work. I can now concentrate on more abstract concerns while making the painting. And in some ways, I feel more free and at ease with myself making a painting this way. It feels like telling a story to oneself. I want to point out that this is very different from painting with a motif right in front of you, where the visual information is more varied and complex. In that situation my task is to try to account for much of that information and bring it onto some sort of unified whole. In the sketch method I’m talking about here, the information has already been accounted for, edited, and brought together. The mental process of making these 2 kinds of paintings is different, one from the other. Click here above to see a short 1 minute video showing the making of this piece to the left. video is a hugely condensed version but you get some sense of how I go about making things.

I am not saying that one method is BETTER than the other. But, methods can become habitual and that can lead to a loss of zing and energy, simply through repetition. I find that inventing new methods, or even slightly altering old methods, can dramatically change my experience relating to the making of the work. Shifting from one method to the other, can offer a needed break, a slight change of outlook, which revitalizes the whole process of picture making. I never abandon ANY of my methods. I go back to them after a bit of a break, and they feel new and vital again.

If you’re feeling any loss of energy relating to making art, consider changing or shifting your rules of engagement somewhat. It doesn’t even have to be a large shift in order for you to feel a change in your attitude towards making the picture. And again, none of this is theoretical, it’s experiential… will feel it.

The 2 images to the right are another example. Sometimes when I’m on my drives I find myself without any paper, and that was the case here. So, I tore off a flap from a cardboard box that I keep in the front seat with my encaustic materials, and drew on that. The painting made from the diagram is on gessoed 8 x 8 inch masonite, one of my favourite surfaces and sizes. Click on the painting image of the White Trailer to see a short video. Even changing your surface or size can dramatically change your response to the making process.

Sometimes when I look at these sketches, and think of how I’ve used them over the years, it reminds me how LITTLE you need to make a bit of meaning in your life. I’ve made paintings in a lot of different ways over the past 40+ years. It takes an INTENTION to do something in art, and from that intention you make up some rules of engagement to help you down that path. The intention and rules can change, at any time…….you’re not locked in. But it’s useful to always remember that the main reason for changing the intention and rules of engagement is to raise yourown level of interest and excitement for the task or the result.

And then there are many works like the 2 here, some more representational, some less. How do they come about? After a more planned session, after the painting for the session is complete, I more or less say to myself “PERMISSION TO PLAY….GO AT IT!!’ There will be a fair amount of paint left over on my palettes from the session, and I’ll have to use up all that paint making one or more pieces on thin paper that already has an acrylic colour upon it (I have 1000s of these papers). The piece is left to dry and later trimmed and collaged to heavy paper. Sometimes collage additions are made to embellish or even radically transform the work. These play sessions often feel wonderfully liberating and I often value the outcome of them as much as any of my other things. Again, deciding to do this with my leftover paint, is simply slightly changing the intention and rules of engagement, which in my case, leads to an increase in excitement.

So you can see why I say, a change is as good as a rest!

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