Every artist knows that the idea of being inspired to create is overrated. Einstein said it perfectly. “Inspiration is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” An artist might come up with a great idea, but making it real means getting into your studio or sitting down at your laptop or your piano and getting to work. Nevertheless, sometimes that great idea refuses to stand up and say “hi.”
With everything going on in the world today, not to mention my broken arm, creative ideas have been eluding me lately. I could stand staring at an empty canvas for an hour and absolutely nothing happened. Until this past week, when suddenly, ideas came into my head. The result, so far, is two small paintings, which are my response to the insane situation we find ourselves in at the moment.
“What the Bleep Just Happened” is a nod to Tribune journalist Rex Huppke’s weekly column with the same title. “You’ve Got to Be Kidding” is my take on the corona virus, social distancing, the sudden shortage of toilet paper and so forth.
I just finished reading “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” by Elizabeth Gilbert. She writes as if she’s sitting across the table with the reader, cup of coffee in hand, leaning forward, and you’re having this great discussion, except she supplies both sides of the discussion. In this case, the discussion is about what qualities we need to cultivate in order to live our most creative lives. It’s all very upbeat and encouraging, whether you think of yourself as a creative person or not. As someone who has to admit to some level of creative impulse in her life, I found it very enlightening.
Speaking of creativity, for a while now, I’ve been exploring abstract shapes, colors, textures and designs in my paintings. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m certainly not done with that aspect of my ‘colorful journey’, but I was inspired recently to return to a genre I painted earlier – landscapes. In ‘Falling Water,’ I used my recently acquired ‘abstract’ skills to try to capture the almost explosive power of water as it thunders and roars its way down a mountain. I hope this painting manages to capture some of the electric energy I felt looking at scenes like this up in Alaska recently.
Abstract (adj.) – to draw from, separate [L. <ab(s)-, from + trahere, to draw] (Wesbster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition, Prentice Hall Press, 1986)
Most of my recent paintings explore the notion of abstraction. When does a representation go from being very realistic to being abstract? I think it has to do with the artist removing the context of the objects being depicted. In “Breakfast,” the viewer is required to focus just on the objects, without being able to tell where the breakfast is located or who might be starting to eat it. An abstract painting can certainly consist of shapes and colors, without relating at all to reality. An abstract painting can also adhere to the literal meaning of the word “abstract,” by separating the subject from its surroundings. In that sense, surrealism is also abstraction.
I just saw a fascinating documentary, “Tim’s Vermeer,” produced by Penn & Teller. It’s the story of Tim, who theorizes that Vermeer used a camera obscura to create his amazingly realistic paintings. This theory is well known, but there are problems with it. Tim set out to overcome the problems. He made and modified a camera obscura, and actually built the entire scene of “The Music Lesson.” He then painted the scene, using his invention. He proved that Vermeer could have similarly used his own camera obscura to achieve the great level of detail in his paintings. At the end of about 130 days, Tim had recreated an exact replica of Vermeer’s painting.
Yet something was still missing from the painting. It lacked the magic that Vermeer brought to his work. Why is that?
An artist must master her craft, surely. More than that, though, the artist uses composition, the effects of light and color, the choice of subject matter, to elevate the craftman-like work to the level of art. It’s seeing ordinary things in a different way. Maybe it’s a sort of magic, after all.
When I first began painting, I tried hard to find interesting subjects. I started out by painting scenes from my travels. Then I painted imagined scenarios using old family photos as references. They were very nice. I sold a lot of those paintings, and I still like most of them. But the longer I practice art, the more I realize that the simplest things can be the subject of interesting paintings. Here is an unusual perspective on breakfast: a cup of coffee and an orange.
I used acrylic paint for finished paintings in Arizona, because I was in a rented house and didn’t want the fuss and mess of oils. I was surprised to find that not only does acrylic paint dry much faster, but that it also influences a painter to use different techniques. With oils, there is time to soften edges, play with the paint, blend colors, scrape and wipe out. With acrylic, the painter doesn’t have this luxury. Instead, you have to work quickly, and I found that acrylics lend themselves to harder edges, more glazing colors over each other, and brighter colors. Which way is better? What do you think? Compare my landscapes, all done in oils, with my latest acrylic still life paintings.