Monday, September 19, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation, Part II: Zone of Rightness, Zone of Comfort

Ambiguities abounded in the last post. It was unclear to what extent my current zero-background tendency is a philosophical conclusion, and to what extent it's a matter of fleeting preference. It was unclear whether monism is exciting or boring. It was unclear whether I am going through a period of creativity or depression.

This series of blue Leah paintings is very interesting to me, in that I know much less about it than I usually do about my work. I'd like to expand the region of ambiguity now.

You may recall that a little while back I wrote a long post about the violent conflict between paint as representation, and paint as paint. I didn't exactly advocate for this conflict, but I certainly described it in glowing terms. I have been told that this blog can be something like an art class. If that's true, it is worth continuing to remember that I am not the teacher here. I'm a student, and I'm learning from writing. So that post, about the wonders of brutal paint handling, was me learning, by writing, about a particular painting technique I am very envious of.

I don't mind confessing envy - I see paintings all the time which inspire the thought, "I wish I painted like that." I don't follow through on most of these thoughts, but I'll cop to having them. I am envious of the techniques of the painters I described in that post - Pacula, Monks, and Wright. Their techniques seem to me both intensely sensual, and philosophically profound.

When I was writing that post, I tried mucking around with thick paint a bit, in Deep Red #4:

Deep Red #4, 2011, oil on canvas, 18"x24"

I was kind of meh about it. It's not bad, but it's not a revelation either. And we're in the revelation business here.

Then I decided to go back to the way I do actually paint, the way I like to paint, for these blue Leah paintings. But something interesting happened along the way. Consider this, the face of Blue Leah #3:

Blue Leah #3, 2011, oil on canvas, 24"x36" (detail)

Much of the paint is smoothly handled. Not so smoothly handled as Ingres, but I do not prefer that particular extreme of smoothness:

The Virgin Adoring the Host, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1852

To me, Ingres often reads as too smooth, his figures over-rendered to a waxen lifelessness. Not in his best works, but in many of the rest of them. Not my path. Even the smoothest, alabasterest skin has roughnesses, discontinuities. The paint must represent or mimic these abruptnesses of the flesh, or the painted flesh will not represent or recall the true flesh. It will fail.

So - my flesh is generally smooth, but not utterly smooth; it is not smoother than its inspiration. And that's how I handled most of the skin on Leah's face.

But in the highlights, you can see that the paint is more jagged, more distinct.

detail, Blue Leah #3

This does not strictly represent reality. The real highlights on her skin were smoother. But the interaction of those highlights with the eye was not. The tiniest of motions causes even a medium-gloss surface to scintillate. The scintillation may be subliminal, but it is there. The light flickers. It doesn't flicker between light and dark, but it does flicker between light and other light. What I painted here was a simile for the scintillation of an observed reflective surface.

Stepping away from representation, however, we have in low-key form that fracturing of the representationalism of the paint, a muted repetition of that descent into the maelstrom, which I so extolled in the Rock and Roll post. If my example painters were Eurydice, who blazes trails, I was Orpheus, hurrying after.

I have always used this trick in highlights. So has everyone else. Consider, again, Greuze:

Study Head of a Woman, Jean-Baptiste Greuze

It is clear enough in the photo, and it is dead clear in person - the highlights of the cheek and nose are a high-relief froth of paint. The shadows are thin as tea. This principle is such a commonplace you can even learn it in art school: paint the highlights thickly, and the shadows thinly. It is an intuitive application of my personal element of design, information density. The eye perceives less information density in darks. Painting darks thinly mimics this natural cognition and heightens it in the painting.

So, yes, I've always done that. But I did it more in the Leah painting, and more boldly. It felt just right to me; I slipped into a zone of rightness. I was painting, and I was thinking, "I am painting, right now, precisely right."

I had a very good time doing that.

Here is the expanded zone of ambiguity about these paintings: Being me, I immediately began to wonder if my feeling of well-being and rightness were correct. There is a different zone that can trigger exactly the same sensation - the zone of comfort.

The zone of comfort is the region within which we do what we already know how to do, and moreover, what we know full well we know how to do. From the beginning until now, it has been a long struggle toward painting for me. When I first picked up brushes, I could scarcely figure out how to get this revolting dyed suspension from the brush onto the canvas. Later, I went through a long period of finding it faintly absurd that so much agonizing and argument has gone into the application of a viscous fluid to a flat surface, where it sits, with a slatternly mobility, until a ridiculous oxidation process gradually polymerizes it into something like permanence. Later still, I was able to make a picture with this archaic medium, and gradually refined my skills until I could do things that, to me, seemed marvelous. I am still refining my techniques, and I am still getting better at it.

But here I sat, confronting the blue Leahs, and thinking - do I like this because it is a summary of the skills I already have, generated from a region of comfort? Or do I like this because I have broken new ground, and am acting from a continuous performance high of athletic dexterity shockingly mastering the impossible?

Well, I don't know. It is very, very difficult to distinguish between these two sensations. There may be no perceptual difference between them at all. The difference emerges later: either you find that you have become better, that your artistic muscles, as it were, have firmed - or that you are already well along the road to complacency and corruption, having accidentally followed a fork which diverged, oh so slowly, from the true path.

I look at the blue Leahs, and I think: by my lights these are good paintings. But what kind of good paintings are they? Do they bode well or do they bode ill?

Time will tell.

Update 9-29-11

Here's a treat for you - artist and friend Fred Hatt has just been writing about nearly the same topic, in his usual thoughtful and engaged way, and illustrated as always with his beautiful work. It appears each of us was writing almost simultaneously, totally unaware that the topic was on the other's mind. This is always fun - the same theme refracted through two analyses.


  1. Fascinating.

    I like this: "The eye perceives less information density in darks. Painting darks thinly mimics this natural cognition and heightens it in the painting."

    All kinds of stuff I learn from your blog. Except sentence structure, obviously.

    Can I share a story about the zone of comfort?

    When I was young, like, I don't know, 13? I liked drawing and art and my parents supported that the best they knew how. I took a class, for a few years, every now and then I would go to this woman's framing shop where she taught art to me and a handful of other kids.

    Most of the time she'd let us pick the materials. I liked to draw on scraps of mat board she had, and I picked up a rapidograph pen and started doing crosshatch. For some reason it was something I was good at. Not the rendering of shapes using shadow or anything necessarily, but I mean the basic task of filling small areas with short strokes that were very evenly spaced and parallel. Then choosing a space next to that and changing the angle and so on. The result was, I could fill a page with precisely two values: light, and kinda dark. But at a glance, it looked technically okay. It looked like I knew what I was doing. For a youngster who had never picked up a rapidograph pen before.

    Anyway one time I was doing this for the leaves of a tree, no doubt a subject matter that fit my "skill." And she said - less enthused than other adults who had seen my 'work', namely my parents - "Be careful."

    I already knew what she meant. She never even spoke it. But I knew she was telling me to be careful of the zone of comfort.

  2. It's good to ask those questions, and interesting to read your thoughts because I've also been writing recently about going out of the comfort zone.

    Here's my take: A particular painting or series doesn't bode anything, because it doesn't determine anything about what you will do in the future. It's good to do work that summarizes and embodies all the skills you've mastered thus far. What's the point of working towards mastery unless you can throw down something masterful now and then? I believe it's good to keep pushing the envelope, wrestling with the creative process, and trying to do things you don't already know you can do, so that your art stays alive and engaged. But at the same time it's good to summarize and consolidate what you already have.

    Those blue Leah paintings are simple - masterfully simple.

  3. Sorry for the long delay, folks, I've been unexpectedly out of the country.

    Ed, that's an amazing anecdote. You lucked into one hell of an art teacher there. Whatever else she did, she drew your eye to a strong principle.

    Fred - I just read the post you're talking about! Jesus, I've gotten close to something you had already written before, but this really breaks new ground in near-plagiarism. I'm going to update this post with a link to yours, because I think it's always interesting to get two engaged takes on a topic, and your post is really fantastic.

    Thanks for the reassurance on the reasonableness of doing what you know, sometimes, and for the kind words on the Leah paintings. And I like your analysis regarding the lack of bodefulness. It's very hopeful.