This week the snow and ice returned, leading to winter activities such as huddling indoors, clinging to radiators and wearing hats. A further incentive to stay in was provided by the arrival of a new book: “What Painting Is” by James Elkins, bought with birthday money and full of strange (but true) ideas about painters and their peculiar obsession with moving smeary stuff around on flat things.
It is quite odd admitting to yourself that you have a fascination with smearing colourful greases about on pieces of material, and thinking that you could probably continue to find it incredibly engaging and interesting throughout life. Yet it isn’t really any stranger than other people’s passions (I hope). This week’s work seems to have taken hours yet not much change to show for it – but painting always seems to be one step forward two steps back (and then sometimes a big jump forward and you never know why).
In his book, Elkins compares painting with alchemy, that weird mystical field that preceded science. I’m not so interested in that but more interested in the way he describes just how famous painters (Monet, Pollock and Rembrandt so far) put their paint on the canvas. For instance, Elkins is convinced that Monet stabbed at the canvas quite violently with his brush, which makes you think again when considering his peaceful, sun-dappled scenes of hay meadows and water gardens. I have read somewhere else that Monet said he painted slowly rather than fast, so who knows? I suppose he could have attacked the canvas determinedly with each stroke but taken his time between strokes as well.
Elkins also reckons that Pollock went to great pains to ensure his paint hit the picture surface in just the right way every time, so that anything that too closely resembled a recognisable shape (like a figure) was destroyed. The book points out the huge variety of different movements that Pollock must have made to create his abstract marks and, although I don’t get excited about his painting, I can appreciate that it works and that it was probably extremely difficult to get right.
It is really hard to make brushmarks that appear both random and pleasing at the same time. Having copied a couple of Nolde’s paintings and stared at many other pictures created by painters who can do ‘wild and free’ strokes, I can see that it is a process of being able to let go just enough but not too much. If you let go too much you can’t depict what you’re trying to but if you are too careful, trying to make sure your picture looks like it ‘should’, the brushmarks soon begin to look a bit leaden and all the same.
Working quickly helps. Sometimes painting out of doors, with the clouds whizzing by and the light altering by the second, means that brush hits canvas in a blur and, before you know it, a wonderful sea of lively marks has appeared. If you are lucky and have been practising a lot the painting works but, if not, you run the risk of ending up with a mess that doesn’t really look like anything – although the brushstrokes are nice.