Monday, January 18, 2010

We're not computers, Sebastian. We're physical.

One of Rutger Hauer's startling number of immortal lines in Blade Runner.

I remembered it the other day while chatting with Adam Miller. He was talking about the surprising feel for painting he encounters sometimes when teaching older women. It wasn't a generalized feel for painting; it was a rapid understanding of how to handle the problem of getting paint onto canvas well.

He speculated that the demographic-specific aptitude results from the physicality of painting. Which is to say, you need to be sensitive to a physical process that you execute through dexterity of the hand. The older women tended to have experience with cooking, mending, and crafts. They had muscle memory of subtly shaping materials by hand in service to an idea.

This quality of painting is easy to forget. The casual viewer can easily confuse figurative painting with photography - not so much thinking that they look the same, but that they arise from similarly vague or abstract procedures. This is not so.

Paint must be coaxed onto a canvas. You can do it rapidly or slowly, thickly or thinly. But you cannot do it automatically. You have to figure out the physical properties of the highly viscous fluid and how it interacts with brush and surface.

Because I hate schooling, I figured it out on my own. I would take a pad of primed canvas sheets, some brushes, and tubes of white and burnt sienna with me to life drawing twice a week from 2001 to 2004. It often struck me as ridiculous, trying to make an image in an archaic way, by shoving colored substances around on a surface. Once I stopped shoving, I started getting it right. It took me those three years to learn the rudiments of the sensitivity and dexterity of hand, and to be able to guess what paint would do as I applied it to the surface.

Then I had to learn the properties of the colors. I spent a few months on cadmium red. French ultramarine. Burnt umber. Yellow ochre. Not just the way they mix, or their relative strengths - but their characteristic consistencies. How to move them around on the surface until they went where I wanted, as I wanted. When my friend James realized that paint is not the same as the photographic emulsion, which takes care of all that color business, he was shocked - it sounded like alchemy to him.

By nature, I do not particularly like to draw attention to the physical substrate of the image. This attitude isn't right or wrong - Steve Wright is producing amazing work from the opposite perspective: he likes you to know that the paint is physical.

His paint is dazzlingly thick, and the brushstrokes are clear and distinct. My own paint is nearly as thin as watercolor, and you can rarely see a brushstroke. Both processes, however, result from a process of learning, not only to see, and interpret, and make aesthetic decisions, but to pour the outcome of all of that into a physical process that feeds back into the more abstract functions and informs them as well.

When I screw up, I still sometimes instinctively crab my hand to hit Apple-Z. But it's not there; paint is physical.

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