“You’re having fun with this” Fred said when he worked his way around the class to get to my spot. “I am?,” I said. I actually felt like I was pulling my hair out all week, full of doubt that I was able to put the head on the paper. I want to physically place the severed head in this artificial construct of a space but I’m left with the realization that I cannot.
I expressed these concerns to Fred in less graphic terms and a rather long discussion took place. Of course Picasso, Matisse and Guston were all in there as examples of artists who made it their life’s work to describe form.
“What is the point of these paintings,” he asked. “To convey the expression,” I offered. He looked down at my recent watercolors (click on photo above for example). “Well, you’ve got it.” he countered. He argued that my frustration comes from my compulsion to get form down when it is not the point. “If the intent is to convey form, you should work on that.” True to form I said, “But I would like more form.” And true to his teacher form he said, “You could do it with less!” “If something doesn’t add to the expression you’re after, don’t paint it. You gotta know when to shut up.”
We don’t have cable tv but my mother-in-law does and she likes Fox News. So it is pretty jarring walking in on programming like this. Sometimes I forget that the world has gone over the top.
We previewed the dinner menu on the flyer by the tv and I set my sites on the “Chicken Parm”. We headed down the halls to the dining room and walked slowly by the residents art that hangs outside the dining room. Peggi’s mom sked what I thought of this painting of asparagus by E. T. Zogby and I said, “I love it”. Peggi’s mom laughed and said , “I figured you would like this”.
Peggi’s mom likes art and used to volunteer at the Detroit Institute of the Arts but she is always mystified by modern art and used to try to get me to explain why I like it. The best I could do was say, “It’s fun to look at”. She wrestled with the whole concept whenever we went to an art gallery and usually left frustrated. So I thought it was pretty cute that she knew I would like this painting and she didn’t seem bothered by it anymore. I feel like we are getting somewhere.
Suzanne, the dining room manager, stopped by to say hi and we started chatting. We said something about playing and she flashed on our old band, the Scorgie’s days, and realized why she always thought we looked so familiar. She was friends with Andrea Kohler and eventually married Jeff, the bass player in the Cliches. We always thought she looked pretty familiar too. It’s nice to know I have a connection to get my art work on the walls when I move out here in my senior years.
But sadly they are no longer either one. Donuts Delite went out of business years ago and the pink Art Deco building on Culver Road is still still up for sale. My family used to head down there after church and Peggi and I used to stop in there all the time for a fried cake and the best cup of coffee in town. I stopped by yesterday for sentimental reasons and walked around the building. The place has possibilities for dreamers.
I think I overheard Fred Lipp right last night in painting class. I think I heard him say, “How can I make this job easier – for myself?”. If I didn’t catch this completely out of context, I’d say he was explaining how he came up with his teaching methods. His methods are directional and purposeful and efficient and clear. They can take a long time to digest and put into practice mostly because there is so much unlearning to dispense with. His rules are concise. “Get to the subject. Address the worst first. Trust your eye.” These are so powerful that it makes perfect sense that they would also be the right tools to make his job (teaching people how to see) easier.
Fred continued moving across the room and stopped next door at the table where my father was working on his watercolor of the UofR regatta. My father was saying something about what he planned on doing in this painting. Fred was saying, “Painting is a visual adventure, a delight for the eyes. You have to learn to trust your eye. If your eye questions something, pay attention to it and address it”.
Another beautiful day in Western New York and I spent most of it in the basement, painting. Time flies down there. Sometimes my paintings go fast like one in a day but my average must be somewhere near one every ten days or so because I just counted my recent stack and I have done about 40 in the last year or so, all 18” by 24″ assuming the width comes before the height. I should know these things.
I did one yesterday that crashed on me. I should say “I crashed it”. It was nice, loose, expressive, colorful and fun but the chin looked awkward. I tried carving out the chin and in the process of trying to fix it I killed it. Not just the chin, the whole thing. I spun out of control, chasing bad spots that formerly looked fine until I managed to take the life out of the whole painting. Why would someone do that to their own painting? I set it aside and started another one today and I’m trying to drive carefully this time.
I brought this painting into class tonight for a show that our class is having in the gallery down at the Workshop but while in class I addressed some problems on a different painting and then decided to leave that one there for the show. My father takes this painting class with me and his neighbor teaches a watercolor class at the Workshop. This neighbor/teacher was telling my father that he does a demonstration in every class and the people love it. My father said he told the neighbor that Fred has never done a demonstration in class the the whole time he has been there. He is just not that kind of teacher.
But Fred may have overheard this conversation because one of the first things he did tonight was say, “May I have attention for a few minutes?”. He went on to say, I see a lot of you are working from a photograph and I just wanted to say that there is a misconception out there about photography. People feel that photos don’t lie and of course they do. Photos haven’t been sorted out unless they were taken by a really good photographer, someone who made decisions about what to leave in and what to take out. And if it is a really good photo that you are working from, all the decisions have already been made for you. It is already done. And why would you want to repeat what you already know? You need to get at the reason you were attracted to the photo in the first place.
To do a good painting you need to be stimulated. You need to solve problems. You need to try things to see what works and what doesn’t. The fun part is the hard part. It is a bit masochistic. This is pretty much what Fred said and it was a pretty dramatic demonstration.
I, on the other hand, am attracted to and work from really bad photos, mugshots from the newspaper as of late, but this applies directly to my process. I am just starting to learn that just because some dude has a neck or two ears or two same size eyes or whatever, I don’t have to paint everything that is in the photo the way it is in the photo. I used to try to reproduce the bad photo and I found this hard and frustrating. Making decisions on what to paint and what not to is not any easier but it is less like beating your head against a wall.
I look for a space to paint everyday. I don’t always find one but most days I do. I’ve been chugging along and I believe I’ve had a glimpse of the other side, the great expanse. The key seems to be in letting go. I start with a preconception but once I’m off and reacting to what I have, the plan goes out the window
I’m seeing missteps earlier, recognizing them as such, and making repairs. And I’m enjoying the road work. I even like the look of the patch job now because I have let go of the original idea. It is hardly a smooth ride but it is exhilarating.
Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones, is quoted as saying, “Usually the material we played was new to us in the studio. We would only do second takes for technical reasons, not because of the musical content”. And the only time he was given charts was for the “Africa Brass” album that John and Eric Dolphy arranged and scored. So all this amazing music was a first take. And Miles is quoted as saying, “There are no mistakes”. Easy for him to say.
I’ve been listening to “Africa Brass, The Complete Sessions” as I paint and I am completely taken by the alternate take of “Africa”. There are three takes of this song in this package so there must have been some technical problems and I am thankful for that. The bass playing is so strong it comes off as a lead instrument. The horn arrangements are unlike anything in jazz. Of course, Coltrane is superb. And Elvin Jones takes his sweet time developing his solo section. His playing is beautiful. He never loses sight of Coltrane’s melody and only heightens the impact when it returns.
I’m thinking about this first take approach as I make mistake after mistake with my paintings. I have been trying to roll with my mistakes, correct them and use them to develop my painting. I’m seeing how valuable my mistakes are. I know that I have to paint the parts with the melody or theme in mind and not lose sight of it.
In the early eighties when drum solos were way uncool someone slipped a note to our band, Personal Effects, that read, “Let the drummer take a ride”. Even if I could talk a good game, the proof is in the pudding.
Our NetFlix cue has reached the Sergio Leone clump that we stacked up a few months ago. We watched “For A Few Dollars More” last night and I was struck by how intriguing each character looked before they even uttered a word. The director sought a strong visual impact with the introduction of each figure even going overboard with a hunchback on Klaus Kinsky.
Which brings me to selecting faces to paint. I should probably have a “duh” category over to the right because this is so obvious. The more intriguing the source, the more likely the work will be of interest. I have mostly been trying to draw, to capture the essence of a pose and some snapshot of a personality from the source, and in the process I bring my own experience with people, the way I feel their presence, to the characters that I’m trying to draw. Why not help myself by choosing more animated sources, accentuate or even exaggerate the features? Why not give the few people that look at my paintings a break? Why should they have to look at these mundane characters? I prepared myself to be more discriminating in selecting source material instead of just trying to paint every mugshot on the Crimestoppers page. But I’m looking at the most recent version from the Democrat & Chronicle and every one of these photos has potential. Duh.
If you are a painter there is no downtime. This is the way it is. My painting class is in recess for the holidays but we will soon be back in the basement of the Memorial Art Gallery on Tuesday nights. And in the meantime, we paint or think about painting. Thinking about it heightens the moment when you are are standing in front of a blank canvas. “This time it will be different”, for why would you want to repeat yourself? This isn’t rock and roll.
I just posted some photos of paintings by people in my painting class. LorraineBohonos and Alice de Mauriac are two of my favorite painters and it is a joy to watch them paint. I think you will like their paintings.
I’ve been painting heads lately but I imagine that this principle would apply to any subject. The source for the head is a start and after the first marks on the canvas I am finding that the painting should be leading the way instead of me. Listening to and reading the painting’s needs is a better way to proceed than doing what I had in mind. If I’m painting the lips on a head, the form of those lips should be talking to the whole. I should be painting the whole at all times and only the whole knows what it needs. I can’t just look at the lips as I paint them.
I am not able to do this but I owe the recognition of this principle to my painting teacher, Fritz Lipp. I apologize if I have misrepresented his direction.I read this quote from Elvin Jones on playing with John Coltrane. “I was more listening to him than trying to accompany as a drummer. I was just fascinated by this guy and the way he played. He had so many ideas. It seemed like he was sitting on a mountain of ideas, and they would just flake off every three or four seconds.” So he played like one of the greatest drummers by listening.
I rode my bike to Target this afternoon and bought a pair of shoes to wear while painting. I try to paint a little bit everyday and yet it never gets easier. I might as well have some comfortable shoes. “It’s not supposed to be easy,” is one of my painting teacher’s favorite lines. It probably isn’t really one of his favorites. It’s just that he has occasion to use it often. I started another face from the Crimestoppers page tonight and thought I was off to a great start but every move I made after that compounded the problems. I have to remind myself to stop and look at the painting. And when I stop to look, I have to step back quite a ways. I have to be open to the possibility that the painting could go in a different direction or maybe be done before I planned. I have to listen to the painting. I need to continually address the problems as I see them. Fix them before doing anything else.
We watched a terrible murder mystery the other night called “Tenebre.” Tony Franciosa is a pulp fiction writer and one of his lines is, “If you cut out the boring bits and keep the rest, you’ve got a best seller.” “If you get rid of the bad in a painting, all you will have left is good.” That’s another one of Fritz Lipp’s sayings. I’ve taken his painting class for about ten years now and I still haven’t learned these simple rules.At a certain point, you have to serve the painting.