In the Sick Room with Thoughts of Wyeth and Hemingway
Underlying the sense of truth, I think, is the notion of authenticity, that somehow or other the artist rather than being a skilled craftsman is someone instead who is inspired, is a kind of seer.
Jack Flam, art historian (interview)
I worked in the Man Cave until about 2:00 a.m., unable to shut down my motor, I was loving the experience of watercoloring so much. When I finally retired to bed, I set this painting on a stand at the foot of the bed, so I could go to sleep, gazing at it. I woke up to it, sick. That darned upper-respiratory infection that I catch every year around January-February, while all my students are busy sharing their flu viruses. There is no escape. I wondered this year if I would get through, usually I get it by mid-January. Oh well. I’m down for the count. But I can sit up in bed and read until the weekend clinic opens. And I can look at my painting.
I want to take a moment and record my deepest, heart-felt satisfaction over what is happening in my recent work. In response to the Jack Flam quote posted above, I don’t mind mentioning that for years I have wanted to go beyond craftsmanship and feel that I am truly an artist. I have wanted to get past the stage of feeling that I was a mere illustrator and feel that I was a legitimate watercolorist. And then, I was liberated several years ago, thanks to Richard Meryman’s Andrew Wyeth: A Quiet Life and Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography. In reading those works, I discovered that these great artists struggled throughout their careers, labeled by some critics as illustrators and mere technnicians. Before reading those works,I always groused, thinking that someone would view one of my watercolors and think “Oh what great detail, what talent,” instead of feeling the sentiments that I always feel when looking at a Hopper or Wyeth. When I look at their works, I feel the loneliness, the calm, the alienation, the quiet–and don’t obsess over their details and craftsmanship. So, for years, I would wonder, “How does one get past the issues of craftsmanship and go about painting ‘mood’? How does one express feelings in a painting?” Turning to my own work, I tended to discount it as merely decent craftsmanship, but not true artistic expression. Perhaps, following Emerson’s vein, I just rejected my own work, because it was mine!
Today, as I calmly look at this watercolor nearing its completion, I can testify that I am feeling very good about its “look”, that what is on display is not mere craftsmanship, but an actual painting, with a particular dynamic, a mood, a feeling. And the reason it changed (for me) from being a work of craftsmanship to an actual work of art is because for the first time, I actually looked at the painting (yesterday morning) with a concrete issue to fix–the problem of lightness and not enough darkness.
For anyone following this blog, you already know that I only recently turned to still-life subjects, having engaged in plein air landscape painting for a number of years. I had always been too intimidated to try my hand at still-life, feeling that the objects were too close and personal, too unforgiving when mistakes arise from inadequate drawing skills. But I finally took the cold plunge, practicing on a number of 8 x 10″ watercolor sketches (all published on this blog) before moving to large 28 x 22″ compositions. Once I made the transition to the larger size, I immediately realized that I had an issue with lighting. all my large watercolors are light, there is so much bright white surface to cover, and landscape painting generally lends itself well to that light, to that sense of atmosphere. But my favorite still-life arrangements from art history are those which feature dramatic, dark settings, and Andrew Wyeth’s watercolors of dark interiors have inspired me the most.
So, yesterday I decided to go for broke. Realizing that my current painting was just as light and airy as the earlier large still life I had painted weeks earlier, I concluded that this one needed some serious darkening. Naturally, I was anxious about such a bold and drastic move, knowing that I could not stop with merely darkening the background. Everything in the picture would change with a darkened background, and therefore would need adjusting. And beyond all that, I knew the risk that the entire painting could collapse in ruin, after nearly a week of carefully constructing it and getting personally attached to it.
Nevertheless, I set to work, blending Winsor Violet with Transparent Yellow, then stirring in Permanent Rose, Winsor Green and Alizarin Crimson as needed, to create the dark values. My heroes of the dim indoor compositions include Andrew Wyeth, Rembrandt van Rijn and Jan Vermeer. I have always loved their deep sepia tones, but never knew how to mix that kind of hue myself. I think I am finding something with the combination of colors mentioned above.
I hope you will pardon this rambling blog entry which began early this morning, and now, by 10:36 p.m. is still under construction. I awoke around 4:00 a.m. with a severely irritated throat. By the time I rose at 7:00, I knew I was going to be visiting the weekend Family Healthcare clinic which opens at noon. I did, along with 450,000 other patients from Tarrant County. Two-and-a-half hours later, a doctor finally examined me and discovered that I had strep throat. So, since then I have returned home, taken antibiotics, sat up in bed reading, dozed, blogged, but mostly sat staring at this painting at the foot of my bed, which is about the only positive thing that happened under this roof all day.
I am pleased, because the watercolor is actually beginning to emulate (not imitate) Andrew Wyeth and his 28 x 22″ drybrush watercolor interiors. His painting “Alvaro and Christina” was the work that inspired my last large still life, and this one. But with this one, I finally found a way to deepen the shadows and give a darker overall look to the composition. And I am very happy with that step.
It’s very easy to spend your old life swishing old tea around in your cup thinking it’s great stuff because you’ve never really tried anything new.
Robert Pirsig, Lila
I am pleased to be trying several things new–still-life, large compositions, dramatic light and darkness. There is so much still out there to explore, and I am grateful to have strength and time to do that.
Thanks for reading.