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:
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:
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:
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.