Tuesday, June 21, 2011

White Canvas

Bear with me for a moment while I criticize myself.

Here's some context: people sometimes see my paintings before they're finished. At this stage, the paintings will tend to have large areas of unpainted white canvas. These people I mention, seeing my paintings in this state, will often say, "Oh, it's done, stop there!"

Usually, I ignore them.

Sometimes, however, I have stopped a painting. This is my second serious painting, from 2005:

Melayn 1, 24"x18," oil on canvas, 2005

My plan was to paint in a restaurant, with other people at the table, and sconces on far walls. However, I hesitated, because I knew I didn't have the skill to do all that at the time. Years passed. I decided I liked the painting the way it was. Or, if you will, I chickened out. So I left it there.

Here's a painting from 2009:

Winter, 40"x30," oil on canvas, 2009

I emailed the painting in this state to my friend Stephen Wright, one of my favorite living painters, with an explanation of the snowy landscape I was planning for the background. Steve wrote back, virtually tearing out his hair, telling me to stop where I was. I usually listen to Steve, so I stopped where I was.

Now, this repeated experience led me to thinking about how to actually intend to leave some of the canvas white. I recently designed my first painting with this compositional element in mind in advance. There's a whole big story to do with this painting, but the white part of the canvas is the part that's apropos:

Self Portrait as Hockney with Piera as Peter in David Hockney's "Model with Unfinished Self Portrait," 1977, 48"x36," oil on canvas, 2011

Well, I guess the title gives away part of the story - this painting was inspired by David Hockney's painting - one of the first painters I studied as a child was David Hockney, and I remain a huge fan of his work:

Model with Unfinished Self Portrait, David Hockney, 1977

The point being, I actually designed my painting to have a lot of white canvas in it, using Hockney's compositional syntax as a kind of learning guide.

Does it work? Meh. I think it's OK. Not my best, not my worst. I like some stuff about it, but it doesn't, to me, have the unexpected excitement of Winter.

What's the moral of the story? It is this - white canvas is, for me at least, something that sneaks up on you. I don't think I can plan to rock the white canvas. I think the white canvas has to tap me on the shoulder and say, "Here I am." So the key to the white canvas isn't to seek it, but to notice it when it seeks you.

This is a very difficult thing, perhaps the most difficult: to remain perpetually awake - never to let your plan induce a mechanical or automatic state in your execution, but rather to be willing to abandon your plan at a moment's notice when a different path opens up. Who can countenance it? We are all creatures of laziness despite our most vigorous exertions. But it won't do; the plan has got to go.

I think this mode of successfully deploying the white canvas is innately linked to the quality the white canvas itself brings to the painting. The white canvas actually appears to be chaotic, to be nihilistic - it is the point where intention dissolves, where imposed meaning goes away. It is shocking in its blankness. A blank canvas alone is absurd, but a painting which has been abandoned is traumatic. The trauma cracks apart assumptions about the painting that was coming-to-be, it allows a synthesis between the intended component and the overwhelming of intention by events. The white does not work as part of a plan because its quality is apart-from-plan-ness. It is the testimony of continuing consciousness. It works only at war with the plan; to have a plan, and yet to embrace the white, is a quality I think of as rock and roll.

I have been thinking about this problem for a little while, and I have a few painters I'd like to discuss with you soon who have embraced the rock and roll in their own ways in representational painting. As Synamore notes, "rock and roll" will be a mathematically acceptable term if it is forthrightly and clearly defined. I'll do that when I get to talking about these painters.

In the meantime, please remember that my propositions are all provisional. I will likely disagree with myself later on, and you should salt me heavily as well.


  1. Daniel. I liked reading about this, very interesting as usual. It makes me wonder how different the white canvas is to the blank paper in your drawing. Is it more traumatic because of the level of commitment to the piece in general? I mean, is it easier in a drawing to go from a line to a very faint suggestion of a line, and sort of weight the benefit of making that line while you're doing it?

    Or do all the things you describe above also apply to your drawing?

    This, for example, is one of my three favorite drawings of yours:

    Not the best example of my point but, like I said, it's a favorite. I just wonder if it's easier in a drawing to say ahead of time it's a torso study or a hand study and do you always have an idea of where you will stop the drawing. Or, more interestingly to me, where you will continue it but in just a simple gesture with no detail or shading.

    I ask because it's one of the things I enjoy most about your drawings, what you choose to represent and what you choose to leave. That's different than doing it in a painting with areas of the background, certainly, but I'm curious.

  2. "The white canvas actually appears to be chaotic, to be nihilistic - it is the point where intention dissolves, where imposed meaning goes away. It is shocking in its blankness. A blank canvas alone is absurd, but a painting which has been abandoned is traumatic. The trauma cracks apart assumptions about the painting that was coming-to-be . ."

    Daniel, that is incredibly well-expressed. I was following you fine until I read that section and then it all totally clicked. I often experience a jarring effect from the white sections of canvases - good jarring, not bad jarring. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with a fully painted canvas, but sometimes the backgrounds, the painted in sections, seem like afterthoughts. Some might say that leaving those white areas are manipulative, by shattering the viewers' assumptions and provoke an unsettling, startled feeling. But hey, I'm cool with that!

    By the way, I had no idea you were a Hockney fan. I have yet to appreciate him. Maybe you can open my eyes.

    Great post, Daniel!


  3. "So the key to the white canvas isn't to seek it, but to notice it when it seeks you."

    I like this thought, and I think it probably applies more broadly -- not just to white space.
    Creative discovery during the painting process adds an element of unpredictability, which is probably more interesting than having every detail mapped out.

  4. Been thinking about this kinda stuff recently, as having been doing a lot more life drawings with watercolour, which seem to use the white of the sheet as an active presence much more than charcoal etc seems to. How to move this over into oil paintings is the problem, though, that I haven't yet solved. But working on it . . . presently work on a toned ground, that generally gets coloured in at some stage - most recent painting with a pale grey. But (hopefully) my paintings are more atmospheric, whereas the ones you are showing here the use the dissonance between the very realistic painting bit and the flat "this is a surface" white.

    Suspect this is one of the issues that all painters have to work through in their own way - and the end result is individuality . . .

  5. Oh, and by the way, have you seen this guys take? - http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/exhibitions/bp-portrait-award-2011/the-exhibition/exhibitors/bp-exhibitor-18.php - using linen, rather than white? Also, the BP portrait exhibitors are in general worth a look for different takes on the question.

  6. Ed -

    Let me tell you something. I never thought of that before - asking why it is so hard to leave parts of a canvas white, while it is so easy to leave parts of a page blank. I have no idea! I've been mulling this ever since your comment, and I haven't got a patent solution yet. You could argue that maybe it's a matter of differing assumptions about the media, but I don't think that's it, or all of it, anyway. Even children leave parts of a page blank. And yet, until very recently, nobody who finished a painting left part of the canvas blank. Dammit, I haven't got an answer to this! I will continue considering it. I'm glad you like that Claudia drawing, though.

    Claudia -

    Thanks for testing my hypothesis against your own experience with paintings. I'm glad you can see the effect I'm describing. I've been using a "weak form" of it for a while, without thinking too much about it - large white areas, in the Natalya painting, the Rachel painting, your painting, and the hands painting. But I have only now thought specifically of just stopping with blank canvas present. Which is funny, because it was one of the first pushy suggestions I ever got from a non-painter, a buddy in LA who thought the paintings would look cooler without my half-assed backgrounds. Which lads me to your second point - I think that a lot of the figurative painting I don't like as much as mine consists either of obsessive impressionist representations of a naked woman in a studio or room of some sort, or a really forced quasi-narrative space that makes you think, "If you want to paint a naked woman, just do it, and don't pretend it's part of a composition." Remind me to talk more about Hockney with you when we hang out again - and thanks for your comment!

    Andrew -

    I am entirely with you, and I'm trying to cultivate openness to discovery during the process myself. We'll see how it goes. Thanks for continuing to check out this blog!

    Jane -

    The white works perhaps most marvelously with watercolor, and this is certainly true of your watercolors. (Any of y'all still reading this, check out Jane's blog - it's Glasgow Painter, it's linked in my blogroll. She's really on a creative tear lately). I like your luminous grey backgrounds in your oil paintings - Sarah Boardman, who sometimes reads this blog, uses a similar, if darker, spectrum in some of her portraits. But overall, yes, I think we will all find individuality in solving the problems that each of us confronts, but confronts alone.

    I hadn't seen Nathan Ford's work - thanks for the link!

  7. it's much easier to fill in the background with mistakes than to leave it blank and wonder, "what if" sometimes. Quit while you're ahead!