On the Easel

My time in Israel is winding down quickly, and with it also my painting time. I have much to look forward to, including the city of Naples, a new home, further academic studies, getting married, seeing my family, as well as all the Italian food and etiquette I have been missing like crazy. Sometimes it can be hard to concentrate on the painting with all the things that need attention right now. I thought I would show a couple of my works in progress in their various stages of starts and restarts before I may find it necessary to pack them away and resume them again later after moving.

The sink study above was a quick one, maybe about an hour at most. I plan on doing another one, but much more “finished,” because I like both quick/sketchy paintings and more defined ones for so many reasons. They have different things to see about the experience of perceiving the space and subject.

The square bedroom ones below instead already involve many days and hours overlapping. I don’t share these because I am happy with them now as they are as a whole, but rather to share the process of what I am thinking about as I paint them and look at them. They have parts or aspects that perhaps I am pleased with or make me think of new directions to take. In the square painting below, for example, I am happy with the back left corner of the room, particularly with the cat cage and Christmas tree sticking out of it. But in order for the painting to be more representative of reality, in my opinion, the painting needs numerous other “days” inside of it, and in particular I need to work on the colors. I may prefer to make this painting more black and white.

This second bedroom start has a bit more room in the approach to the bed, and I like that. I also like the cooler and softer colors, and I am wondering if I don’t want to make the painting a bit more blurry-eyed in general. Below this top surface are, I think, at least 6 or 7 other paintings I had started, though I am not sure I can remember what they were.

This last square painting had originally been an interior one, depicting my kitchen, at least until the washing machine/sidewalk scene outside my front door distracted me so much to the point that I needed to grab the closest, least precious, most suitably sized surface available. Hence, no more kitchen painting. The photo below shows the first half hour of frenzied changes, and it has been an absolute joy to be outdoors painting again. I do this a lot, painting over older paintings, and not because I am convinced that the new painting will be better, but because the new motif interests me more. Painting is a passionate enterprise, involving impulsive actions which can ultimately lead to a failure. But you must take a breath and jump all the same.

Andrew Wyeth

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Nowadays, it is considered taboo in figurative painting to betray any sense of feeling if you want to be taken seriously. Objective analysis of form and color is heralded as a higher goal for a painter, and yet I am not sure I agree. The art can then very easily become just as boring as photorealism. There is a lot of excellent painting happening today, but when I feel that it is being conducted in a mechanical method or pixelized way, rather than perhaps being something pounced upon and pushed through an emotional instinct, it does not seem to go beyond craft and decoration for me. I think this becomes even more interesting to examine the closer you edge to the extremes of more abstract versus highly rendered paintings. When I look at Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, the last thing that comes to mind is painstaking, empty illustration. There is a love driving his work, both found and lost. I always feel privileged to look at his paintings, swept away by the chance to stand in his shoes and look deeply at his recordings of the people, places and weather around him. It is a rare gift that someone looked so stubbornly, poignantly and faithfully – not afraid to expose himself so, despite the trends of the commercial art world.

Andrew Wyeth (July 12, 1917 – January 16, 2009) was primarily classified as a realist painter and is one of the artists I have consistently looked at in astonishment during the past 20 years. In a “Life Magazine” article in 1965, Wyeth said that although he was thought of as a realist, he thought of himself as an abstractionist:

My people, my objects breathe in a different way: there’s another core — an excitement that’s definitely abstract. My God, when you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing — if you have an emotion about it, there’s no end.

Wyeth’s favorite subjects were the land and people around him, both in his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and at his summer home in Cushing, Maine. With his father’s guidance, painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth, he mastered figure study and watercolor, and later learned egg tempera from his brother-in-law Peter Hurd. He studied art history on his own, admiring many masters of Renaissance and American painting, especially Winslow Homer.

N.C. fostered an inner self-confidence to follow one’s own talents without thought of how the work is received. In a letter to Andrew in 1944, N.C. wrote:

The great men [Thoreau, Goethe, Emerson, Tolstoy] forever radiate a sharp sense of that profound requirement of an artist, to fully understand that consequences of what he creates are unimportant. Let the motive for action be in the action itself and not in the event. I know from my own experience that when I create with any degree of strength and beauty I have no thought of consequences. Anyone who creates for effect — to score a hit — does not know what he is missing!

In October 1945, Wyeth’s father and three-year-old nephew were killed when their car stalled on railroad tracks near their home and was struck by a train. The strong emotions arising from this tragedy engulfed Wyeth personally and artistically, finding an outlet in what would become his enduring style. For further biographical reading on Wyeth in Wikipedia, click here. There is a great video of “Andrew Wyeth Draws a Portrait” on the Painting Perceptions forum. Sharing below images I have collected over time for others to enjoy.

On Being Humble

I started the above painting yesterday, and though it is not finished yet, I thought I would do a post about it to show a bit of my painting process, which often is more about thinking about the painting and the subject, rather than the actual application of paint.  The idea for this painting came about the other day when a friend of mine was telling me about a musician friend of his, an Israeli jazz electric guitarist, who was feeling discouraged.  This made me think yet again about the battle artists must fight alone.  You must believe in your technical abilities and artistic mission and strive always to take the right path, but something will come along periodically that questions your very existence.  When one decides to become an artist, they make this choice with the understanding that it actually serves no purpose other than to put on canvas what you observe, think, and feel.  The world will go on without you and despite you, as W.H. Auden voiced so well with Musee des Beaux Arts:


About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

–W.H. Auden, 1940


Of course, we wish as painters that our labor and love would not go to naught, but this brings me to another point I wanted to share.  I believe that there are a lot of artists out there who paint in a classical, realistic, or impressionist way in terms of style and then they try to throw themselves into each painting with impressive strokes and impastos or through photographic realism to show off their talents.  I am starting to dislike this even more as I continually look at art, for I believe that the beauty of nature should take the limelight, and the artist should simply be trying to paint the subject in the best possible way.  The artists that I most appreciate and respect are those that strive to be humble and sincere, and I aim to follow their example.  Though artists try to throw a noose around beauty and “capture” it on the canvas, they must constantly keep their eyes open to everything, for some pretty striking things could appear in a dark corner.  Some artists might think they have developed a trademark style or stroke that can become popular, but in my opinion, it should be the subject which dictates how it should be painted.  Sometimes, I question gobs of impasto on something as smooth as skin or onions, or spending years on a painting to include every single reflection or wrinkle that they see in a photograph.   Sure, it takes skill to pull it off, but there should be an underlying humble and sincere reason for painting the subject.  Just as figurative painters might question the validity of drip paintings and installations, they must also question the validity of their own painting if they truly want to contribute as figurative artists.  An unpleasant and difficult thought I know, but this is the battle of the artist.