Sometimes I have an imaginary picture in mind of the poet Mallarmé in his study late at night–changing, blotting, transferring, transforming each word and its relations with such care–and I think that the sustained energy for that travail must have come from the secret knowledge that each word was a link in the chain that he was forging to bind himself to the universe; and so with other poets, composers and painters.
As one who loathes reading pity-party blogs, I will just say that this weekend took me to rock bottom, simply started by spending my entire Saturday, from 9 a.m. till 11:30 p.m. grading exams from high school. I awoke this morning with a stiff neck, headache (I almost never get headaches) and a deep feeling of depression. Fortunately, I shook it off by traveling to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to view for the third time in a week the extensive Robert Motherwell installation, to take more notes, record more observations, and then retreat to the cafe patio to read further from my new book Robert Motherwell: 100 Years over a cup of coffee. With rainy weather throughout the day, the sky was overcast rendering the temperatures cool and delicious.
Reading Motherwell’s imaginative ruminations about the poet Mallarmé inhis study stirred my blood, as it brought to my mind images of Motherwell working through the night in his Greenwich, Connecticut studio, painting, scrutinizing, adjusting, second-guessing, editing further. This is what motivates me when making art, and I wish to God I could have had studio time yesterday instead of burning up the entire day and night with grading deadlines. The past weeks have featured abundant obstacles, and time away from the studio pushes my spirits downward. At least on this splendid day, I could vicariously enjoy Mallarmé and Motherwell’s creative processes, and drink deeply from the Modern’s art collection. I feel more than ready to walk into tomorrow’s art history classes as we continue our push through the modern era.
The week ahead will be a busy one, with an overcrowded school schedule, and my first art festival of the year coming up Friday. I’ll do my best to blog between now and the weekend. Another part of my afternoon was spent going over the rough drafts of this book I’m attempting to write about my experiences last summer on the Texas Laguna Madre. The draft is still rough, just not as rough as yesterday. I will go ahead and post it below. It covers the first day of my island observations. Thanks for reading.
S U N D A Y
Watching my Friends Pull Away
What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?–it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.
At 10:43 a.m., Sunday morning, June 7, 2015, I stood at the dock and waved at the boat pulling away, carrying with it my two new acquaintances that had just transported me to this small island on the Texas Laguna Madre. They will return in six days. For the first time in my sixty-one years on this planet, I stand, gazing across a hypersaline body of water. But I don’t feel exiled, cut off, expelled from civilization. On the contrary, I have been honored with space to create and find my artistic voice. Having reached a plateau in my body of watercolor work, I now have an opportunity to reclaim my mojo hand. I have landed an Artist-in-Residence assignment with Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, and will spend a week exploring and painting this exotic environment on a spoil island in the Laguna Madre, with no distracting appointments and no transportation to use as an excuse to run off and find something else to do. As a painter, I am filled with deep-seated gratitude at what Eugene Delacroix and Henri Matisse described as “cleansing the eye.” This is not my home, not my environment. Just raw nature enveloping me, and in Emersonian fashion my head is bathed in the blithe air.
Having risen at 4:30 this morning to catch the boat to the island, and 3:00 yesterday morning, to make the eight-hour drive from Arlington to Corpus Christi, I felt fatigued and worried that Day One of my residency would be flat due to lack of rest. But as I watched Paul and Bobby pull away from the dock, a switch flipped, and turning to the front porch table I had converted to a workbench, I immediately began soaking and stretching paper for my first paintings.
From my tenth-grade Art II teacher, Mr. Leo Hoeh, I learned to soak and stretch watercolor paper over canvas stretchers, using a staple gun to secure the edges, in the same way oil and acrylic painters stretch canvas. When the paper dries, it shrinks and stretches tightly over the stretchers and feels like a drum skin. When painting outdoors en plein air (I was told that was French for painting with the bugs!), the paper dries rapidly while watercoloring, since the front and back surfaces are exposed to the breeze. After years of practice, I can stretch these very quickly, and immediately set to work stretching four 9 x 12” papers, laying them out in the sun to dry.
. . . and so begins the task . . .
As the paper dried on the stretchers, I took out my small Fluid watercolor block and went to work, looking to the west by northwest at the distant gas-powered electrical plant for Flower Bluff, adjacent to Corpus Christi. The billowing clouds piled above were very attractive, and for the first time in my life, I tried to paint the actual clouds as portraits, recording their contours and colors as closely as I could to what I saw above me. In time past, I had always “faked” my clouds, using gimmicks like pouring, blotting with cloth towels, scouring with Q-tips, etc. I had never actually tried to copy clouds from life as I did on this day.
The longer I worked on the clouds, the more my soul smiled, feeling a connection with Monet and company as they experimented en plein air more than a century before. Desiré Louis, viewing the work of Monet, recorded the following on May 19, 1891 in L’Événement:
His skies, whether pure or cloudy, gay or melancholic, resonate with the mysterious sounds of the universe. He forces the spirit to think and to soar above these magisterial representations . . . of reality . . . . In front of this seductive painting, you have the impression of a full and benevolent life which makes you recall the intoxication one feels with the dawning of a new day.
First Attempted Painting at the Laguna Madre
By the time I got to the water below, the sun had risen high enough that the colors had muted considerably. That is the challenge of plein air painting: light conditions change rapidly and the painter has to make quick decisions while painting this moving target. Monet himself complained of nature not posing still for him, saying “I am grinding away, bent on a series of different effects, but at this time of year, the sun goes down so quickly that I cannot keep up with it.” I am thinking seriously about setting up at the same time tomorrow, and if the sun is strong and the day clear, perhaps I’ll get another look at that fabulous teal lagoon. I have little-to-no experience painting broad expanses of water and am unsure as to how to match those deep colors I saw earlier when I began.
Laying the painting aside, I resumed my reading of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. I am about three-quarters of my way through the book now, and as I explore these pages, my enthusiasm just keeps building. I cannot believe the flair for writing the young Thoreau possessed. Finding my stretched paper dry enough to begin work, I turned my attention to a bed of wildflowers and prickly pear cactus on the south side of the field station where I’m living this week. I’ve never painted cactus before, and I’m going to have to make some more tries at this. I have trouble distinguishing it from the greenery surrounding it, and haven’t quite found the key to that. But the effort was still enjoyable. I love the process of plein air painting, even if I don’t get the results I anticipated.
Cactus and Wildflowers
About halfway through the cactus sketch, I looked out over another spread of wildflowers and lush grasses on the west side of my porch, and decided to give those a try, with a little help from a bottle of masquing fluid. I enjoyed the effort of duplicating the colors of the flowers that popped among the grasses, but also decided to make some abstract compositional decisions on the shape of the composition, thinking back over my recent experiments with Andrew Wyeth drybrush sketches. My high school teacher of Art I and III, Mr. Robie Scucchi, taught me much about abstract compositional matters, pointing out the way Andrew Wyeth left the margins of his watercolor paper untouched, and shaping his positive spaces of landscape textures with fingers and tentacles reaching out into the white void in all directions. Mr. Scucchi urged that the shape of the negative boundaries surrounding the composition were just as dramatic as the actual ground textures in the Wyeth drybrush studies. I decided to experiment with the perimeter of my wildflowers sketch, pushing fingers of greenery into the surrounding void.
A Second Attempt at Sketching Wildflowers
As the June sun waxed in the western half of the sky, rendering the heat of my front porch unbearable, I retreated to the rear of the field station, seeking shade, and noticed some attractive clumps of gulf cordgrass with white flowers accenting their base, flourishing a few feet from the eastern porch. Sitting on a bench and leaning against the field station, I read some more from Thoreau, but kept looking up at the cordgrass on the shady side of the house, and could not stop thinking about the Albrecht Dürer drybrush studies of tall grasses that I have always admired. Wyeth was always harking back to those compositions, testifying that they inspired him to attempt grass studies in watercolor. I recalled Dürer’s statement that “art lies hidden within nature; he who can wrest it from her, has it.” So, I closed the book and contemplated on solving the problem of rendering tall grasses in transparent watercolor. Suddenly it hit me: masque the white flowers first on the white paper, then flood the paper with the lightest, coolest shade of green. When it dries, draw tall grasses with the Masquepen. Let it dry. Then flood the paper with a little darker green (I mixed transparent yellow into it). Let it dry. Then draw more grasses with the masquepen. Let dry. Then I added Winsor Red to darken and warm the green and flooded the area again. After it dried, I masqued more grasses. Next I added Winsor Violet to the ever-darkening green I was building up. Then I masqued some more. Finally, adding Alizarin Crimson, I made the green nearly black, and painted grasses over the entire masque-and-layered composition, frequently raking my sharp HB pencil through the wet to draw out thin, spiky blades of cordgrass. Once it dried, I stripped away all the layers of masquing, and finding too much white grass, flooded it once more with a light, cool green to turn the white grasses into pale green.
Fourth and Final Watercolor of the First Day
This was my fourth watercolor of the day, and I was too tired to assess whether it was any good (or any of the other paintings for that matter). But I was deeply pleased that I kicked out four sketches on Day One, got in some excellent reading, and ground out a number of journal pages.
That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.
The day was perfect, but long. That night I planned to sleep a long time for the first time in three nights.
 Jack Kerouac, On the Road
 Paul Hayes Tucker, Monet in the ‘90s: The Series Paintings (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1989), pp. 3-4.
 Ibid,. p. 3.
 Thoreau, Walden.