Let’s light the wood cook stove in the outdoor courtyard while a gentle rain wakes nearby tree frogs.
While you are listening, I shall split some wood and set out the makings for tea.
There are a couple of cushions on the cob bench that are just right for us. Now, I mentioned a few painting secrets didn’t I? To refine this just a little – these are this particular artist’s painting secrets that I am referencing, not the generic painter from all genres and all times. Lastly, they are painting secrets only in if we haven’t yet taken the time to consider their relevance in relation to our painting language.
The first painting secret is to hold a tension between knowing and the unexpected. To clarify, I don’t really believe in divine intervention or creativity passing through me from some higher power. Admittedly, my conscious mind is seldom in control of my brush except as I begin and at the completion of a work – so possibly “belief” is irrelevant in this situation. However, I start with an intention. I choose a subject, a medium, a surface and an approach or painting problem. I decide which pigments to set out. This is the “knowing” part of the equation which is heavily influenced by frequent practice such as with this first of two acrylic painting sketches from yesterday.
“Arbutus tree in ray of sun” 8 x 10 inch acrylic painting sketch on gessoboard (update February 6, 2015: this sketch is now sold)
This painting sketch didn’t come out of nowhere. Even though it was painted in the middle of an indoor market day with not a glimpse of the foggy sea visible, the sketch is inspired by an experience from the day before.
While walking, a friend asks if I had done a painting of this particular arbutus tree. I reply – not yet – as I frame my composition – maybe tomorrow though – and the shutter releases. It is these slivers of moments overlapping one-over-another that find their way onto my canvases. How do I capture our relaxed ease which followed from lunch together and now an afternoon January stroll around a small piece of our island? What colours and brushstrokes will translate these feelings, this remembering? It is so much more than this arbutus tree hunch over the sandstone shore, where the sun catches and the fog shifts upon the sea.
This painting sketch is a first attempt to answer these questions. I really haven’t a clue what the answer is but I find I must set myself to the problem just the same. This is the “unexpected” half of the equation. I must move forward without knowing. I believe this is where some painters and creative beings feel they are merely a vessel for the work to come through. I am not convinced. The focus and full-body experience as the brushes move paint onto canvas is undeniable and yes possibly spiritual in approach. But I still claim awareness of my physical presence and leaning heavily on a large basket of experience both from painting and from life. The unpredictable combination of these elements is what is leads us to the unexpected. It is the tension between this knowing and embracing unknown possibilities that is important. To achieve results I must show up and practice my craft frequently. Relying on divine intervention will only get us so far. Then there is work to be done.
The second painting secret is finding precisely the intimate details that are essential. Then I paint these aspect with all of my senses and layers of brushstrokes to expose this specific intimacy. For a landscape or still life painter there is always movement even when it is not at first noticeable. This is because the earth is moving. This grants us a readily identifiable intimacy in our relationship to a precise aspect of that time of day, a specific season combined with our years of experience with this spiraling cycle. These years of experience I reference are is “noticing years” rather than “birth years” which is significant. Currently, with the amount of time humans spend in artificial environments, a person can go their whole life with little conscious awareness and possibly no interest in our earthly relationship in the universe. We must notice in a conscious way in order to deepen and strengthen our painting vocabulary of movement and the interrelationship of light and our subjects. I sense this to be true even in abstract work. The paintings of Richard Diebenkorn whose work will be shown at the Royal Academy in London England March 14 to June 7 2015.
Yet, though our urban surroundings mask our awareness to nature, it takes very little to awaken these sensory experience. Repeated deliberate observation is all that is really necessary. Take this second painting sketch “Steveston morning fog” an 8 x 10 acrylic painting sketch on gessoboard.
The fishing boats are important but they do not float on their own in the morning fog. They are imbedded in their surroundings and are experienced as small against a grand sky that touches right down to the sea. I made them even smaller in relationship to the sky for this reason than my photography reference information.
Maybe even too small perhaps. However, in this translation of my experience it is our human smallness in relationship to the sky and the morning light coming through the fog that was the intimate detail of significance.
The third painting secret I have to share is to release any notion of importance. We must take our work seriously of course but release any investment in a particular outcome of success, recognition or fortune. This doesn’t mean we relinquish these things completely but rather that they remain outside of the painting process and, as much as possible, outside of our lives in general. Yes, well-being is important. Yes, we desire and do much better with safe secure housing and nutritious foods. Yes, we need social appreciation and connection to varying degrees depending on our own temperament. But we need much less of what is defined as success, recognition and fortune than we are led through advertizing and media to believe that we do – particularly in North America. For example, my large old tea kettle has out lasted five electric kettles which I somehow thought were necessary. I gave up on the latter about three years ago. They were costly, environmentally unsustainable due to their continued need for replacement. But I had decided for some reason that the electric kettle was faster and easier to use. In reality not so. Water boils in about the same amount of time whether in the kettle on the stove or with the plug-in variety. There is nothing helpful about having this extra contraption on the counter. I had unwittingly replaced experience for efficiency which if I unravel brings us back to the notion of my importance. I had important things to do so the most efficient path was the one that was most desirable. Hence, I purchased a series of ill considered electric kettles.
Let’s explore what we notice if we value experience over efficiency as we prepare and drink this cup of tea because this old wood cook stove still makes a fine cup of tea though it will take us about three times as long by the time we get the fire going and the water boiling. When I am sitting here in the outdoor courtyard I have no trouble at all remembering that the earth is on its winter turn and half way to spring. I can almost feel the trees releasing the oxygen I pull deep into the bottom of my lungs. This awareness is far more valuable to my painting than the importance of a huge following on social media, a cover feature in a national paper or financial wealth. The turning of the earth, the trees, the following, the national article and financial wealth are all temporary – just as we are. Therefore, I suggest that our attention is best spent on insuring our minimal needs while affording us as much freedom to be aware of our relationship to our environment as possible. And here is the rub – insuring minimal needs may requiring marketing and selling the paintings that are rendered in these passages of freedom awareness we have created by attending to only our minimal needs. Still I will argue that success, recognition and fortune are not an adequate definition of a painter and are useless and possibly harmful aspect to attend to as an artist. They are distractions that defuse our attention from our own temporariness. Resisting mortality is futile. Success, recognition and fortune are temporary observations that spiral around through time, for only a short while. Then these observations, along with the physical paintings will disappear just a we did maybe a few hundred years before. We can’t cheat mortality and the effort to stall the inevitable interferes with what must be painted today.
With these three secrets, the waves can then roll as if moved by our breath.
(detail Sea and Stones French Beach 12 x 16 inch walnut oil on wood with 1.5 inch cradle)
The sky can open up as never before remembered.
(detail Sea and Sky French Beach 12 x 16 inch walnut oil on wood with 1.5 inch cradle)
Well, the last of my tea is cold and it getting dark. Time to call it a day. Before I go, I want to introduce a new blog by a fellow artist and colleague Lena Levin. Some of the ideas I have shared here Lena explores from a historical, academic as well as personal perspective at “Sonnet in Colour.” She recently introduced this new blog in her newsletter as follows:
There is this almost inevitable flavour of self-display in writing (and showing paintings) publicly, and I am extremely introverted — I really don’t want any self-display. Even now, a huge part of me would prefer to just shut up and go paint in solitude and silence. Or read something, or listen, or see. But there is also this feeling that Shakespeare, and sonnets, and paintings, and art in general — all these things often thought of as high-brow, inessential luxuries — are in fact urgently relevant to our day-to-day lives, even desperately needed. And maybe — just maybe — I might be able to share something which someone else needs; open some doors, show some pathways to what fills my own life with so much joy and happiness.
This is why I’ve decided to structure the site not just around the sonnets, or paintings, but around three themes, which — in one or another way — play a crucial role in everyone’s life: “Self and Consciousness”, “Love”, and “Time and Mortality” (with sub-headings to be added as the site grows).
I hope you enjoy reading her writing and viewing her paintings as much as I do.
Now, while I gather the tea items and carry them back to the inside kitchen…
What is one of your creative secrets?
© 2015 Terrill Welch, All rights reserved.
Liberal usage granted with written permission. See “About” for details.
Creative Potager – Visit with painter and photographer Terrill Welch
From Mayne Island, British Columbia, Canada
For gallery and purchase information about Terrill’s photographs and paintings go to http://terrillwelchartist.com