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Pearls from artists* # 336

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Beauty and symbol are the two faces of the numinous, that enigmatic force that bestows upon certain things, places, and moments an otherworldly power.  It is the combination of radical beauty and symbolic resonance – of apparition and death – that makes aesthetic objects so overpowering.  While at the surface there may appear to be an insurmountable difference between a Shinto shrine and a Tom Waits concert, both use beauty and symbol to confront us with what is strange and sacred in life.  Their similarity is as profound as their differences. 

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

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Pearls from artists* # 94

Working on "False Friends"  Photo: Diana Feit

Working on “False Friends” Photo: Diana Feit

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

A work of art which inspires us comes from no quibbling or uncertain man.  It is the manifest of a very positive nature in great enjoyment, and at the very moment the work was done.

It is not enough to have thought great things before doing the work.  The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact state of being of the artist at that exact moment into the work, and there it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs, and to be read later by the artist himself, with perhaps some surprise, as a revelation of himself.

For an artist to be interesting to us he must be interesting to himself.  He must have been capable of intense feeling, and capable of profound contemplation.

He who has contemplated has met with himself, is in a state to see into the realities beyond the surfaces of his subject.  Nature reveals to him, and, seeing and feeling intensely, he paints, and whether he wills it or not each brush stroke is an exact record of such as he was at the exact moment the stroke was made.

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

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Pearls from artists* # 82

"The Sovereign," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Sovereign,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Art isn’t psychology.  For one thing art deals in images, not language.  Images precede language and are closer to feelings.  They summon feelings before they’re named and categorized, when they’re still fresh and sometimes hard to recognize or identify.

For another thing, to translate his vision an artist uses materials that are, for lack of a better word, alchemical.  Paint, for example, has this wonderful, mysterious quality –  a smell and a sensuous, velvety feel and an ability to hold color and light – that unlocks and speeds up one’s creative metabolism.  And paint captures my every impulse – from my broadest conceptions to the tiniest ticks and tremors of my wrist.

There are literally no words to describe what occurs when an image suddenly and unexpectedly appears on the canvas.  Sometimes it’s serendipity, the result of a fortunate brushstroke.  Sometimes I think it has to do with the inherent qualities of paint, or the slickness of a surface, or the fullness or acuity of a brush.  And sometimes when I’ve got a good rhythm going and everything comes together, I feel as though it produces the purest expression of who I am and what I am and how I perceive the world.   

Eric Fischl and Michael Stone in Bad Boy:  My Life on and off the Canvas

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Pearls from artists* # 79

Negombo, Sri Lanka

Negombo, Sri Lanka

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

“What’s to say?  Great paintings – people flock to see them, they draw crowds, they’re reproduced endlessly on coffee mugs and mouse pads and anything-you-like.  And, I count myself in the following, you can have a lifetime of perfectly sincere museum-going where you traipse around enjoying everything and then go out and have some lunch.  But … if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art.  It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway.  Psst, you.  Hey, kid. Yes, you.”  Fingertip gliding over the faded-out photo – the conservator’s touch, a-touch-without-touching, a communion wafer’s space between the surface and his forefinger.  “An individual heart-shock.  Your dream … Vermeer’s dream.  You see one painting, I see another, the art book puts it at another remove still, the lady buying the greeting card at the museum shop sees something else entire, and that’s not even to mention the people separated from us by time – four hundred years before us, four hundred years after we’re gone – it’ll never strike anybody the same way and the great majority of people it’ll never strike in any deep way at all – a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and particular.  Yours, yours.  I was painted for you… fateful objects.  Every dealer and antiquaire recognizes them.  The pieces that occur and recur.  Maybe for someone else, not a dealer, it wouldn’t be an object.  It’d be a city, a color, a time of day.  The nail where your fate is liable to catch and snag.”    

Donna Tartt in The Goldfinch 

Comments are welcome!         

Q: How do you know when a pastel painting is finished?

"Big Wow," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Big Wow,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  During the several months that I work on a pastel painting, I search for the best, most eye-popping colors, as I build up and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pigment.  I am able to complete some areas, like the background, fairly easily –  maybe with six or seven layers – but the more realistic parts take more applications because I am adding details.  Details always take time to perfect.  No matter how many pastel layers I apply, however, I never use fixatives.  It is difficult to see this in reproductions of my work, but the finished surfaces achieve a texture akin to velvet.   My technique involves blending each layer with my fingers, pushing pastel deep into the tooth of the sandpaper.  The paper holds plenty of pigment and because the pastel doesn’t flake off, there is no need for fixatives.

I consider a given painting complete when it is as good as I can make it, when adding or subtracting anything would diminish what is there.  I know my abilities and I know what each individual stick of pastel can do.  I continually try to push myself and my materials to their limits.              

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Pearls from artists* # 8

A view from the studio

A view from the studio

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Here is a fairly sober version of what happens in the small room between the writer and the work itself. It is similar to what happens between a painter and the canvas.
First you shape the vision of what the projected work of art will be. The vision, I stress, is no marvelous thing: it is he work’s intellectual structure and aesthetic surface. It is a chip of mind, a pleasing intellectual object. It is a vision of the work, not of the world. It is a glowing thing, a blurred thing of beauty. Its structure is at once luminous and translucent; you can see the world through it. After you receive the initial charge of this imaginary object, you add to it at once several aspects, and incubate it most gingerly as it grows into itself.
Many aspects of the work are still uncertain, of course; you know that. You know that if you proceed you will change things and learn things, that the form will grow under your hands and develop new and richer lights. But that change will not alter the vision or its deep structures; it will only enrich it. You know that and you are right.
But you are wrong if you think that in the actual writing or in the actual painting, you are filling in the vision. You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.
Here is how it happens. The vision is, sub specie aeternitatis, a set of mental relationships, a coherent series of formal possibilities. In the actual rooms of time, however, it is a page or two of legal paper filled with words and questions; it is a terrible diagram, a few books’ names in a margin, an ambiguous doodle, a corner folded down in a library book. There are memos from the thinking brain to witless hope.
Nevertheless, ignoring the provisional and pathetic nature of these scraps, and bearing the vision itself in mind – having it before your sights like the very Grail – you begin to scratch out the first faint marks on the canvas, on the page. You begin the work proper. Now you have gone and done it. Now the thing is no longer a vision: it is paper.
Words lad to other words and down the garden path. You adjust the paints’ values and hues not to the world, not to the vision, but to the rest of the paint. The materials are stubborn and rigid; push is always coming to shove. You can fly – you can fly higher than you thought possible – but you can never get off the page. After every passage another passage follows, more sentences, more everything on drearily down. Time and materials hound the work; the vision recedes ever farther into the dim realms.
And so you continue the work, and finish it. Probably by now you have been forced to toss the most essential part of the vision. But this is a concern for mere nostalgia now: for before your eyes, and stealing your heart, is this fighting and frail finished product, entirely opaque. You can see nothing through it. It is only itself, a series of well-known passages, some colored paint. Its relationship to the vision that impelled it is the relationship between any energy and any work, anything unchanging to anything temporal.
The work is not the vision itself, certainly. It is not the vision filled in, as if it had been a coloring book. It is not the vision reproduced in time; that were impossible. It is rather a simulacrum and a replacement. It is a golem. You try – you try every time – to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine before men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Comments are welcome.

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