Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Every Single Time, It is a Struggle

You have recently seen me box my own ears over the worrisome possibility that it is getting too easy for me to paint the things that I paint. Now I'd like to argue against myself again, by means of two examples.

Here is the current Blue Leah painting - one of two torsos I am planning for the series:

Blue Leah #5, oil on canvas, 48"x36", 2011 (work in progress)

I think this is going pretty well. During the last session, I painted the belly. I slouched toward this passage feeling fairly lowly about it, having in mind everything I had said about getting too good at what I prefer doing. If there's one thing I prefer doing, it's painting women's bellies. I love bellies. I've painted a lot of them (bellies, I mean, but women too, who have bellies). So I kind of felt like a complacent jackass, getting ready to paint this one.

But then I started, and all that self-disgust evaporated, because I came face-to-face with a fact I had forgotten since last time I painted a woman's belly: that painting bellies is as hard as fucking hell.

Every single time, it's that hard. It doesn't get easier. The belly is a large expanse of subtly varied structure, reflected in subtle shifts of light, shade, and color. Too much subtlety and you get mush - too little, and you get an anatomical cartoon. To paint a belly is to skate over a vast floe of difficult choices, each of which must be resolved correctly and in the moment to produce an overall sense of bellitude. I spent seven and a half hours painting this belly, from the bottom of the breasts down: three with Leah present, and another four and a half alone and tearing my hair out. Then I gave up.

Not long after I gave up, I looked at this belly again, and I thought, "This is a good belly." And I breathed a sigh of relief.

Every single time, it is a struggle.

Let me tell you about a different struggle I had recently. Here's a painting of some strands of algae, part of a group of paintings of microbes about which I'll tell you more very shortly:

Microbiota #7, oil on canvas, 48"x60", 2011

This is quite a large painting - 48"x60," in fact. Here it is in context, so you can get a sense of scale:

I spent several days painting those strands. I knew what the painting would look like when I got done - I think it looks cool. I think it is luminous and carries a feeling of translucence and aquatic clumping and drifting. But painting those strands of algae, while not technically difficult, was in the aggregate not unlike watching radar. It was brain-burningly repetitive and maddening. It gave rise to paranoia and despair. Sometimes you just force your way on through - for days and days.

Two struggles: to do it right, and to do it at all. I should worry less about complacency, and more about just doing the work. The work will take care of everything else.

Now, what about this group of paintings of microbes? As you may have guessed from the in-context photograph, it is part of a show, my first two-person show. I'll tell you the whole story in the next post.


  1. It is a fantastic belly. Also your painting of it is quite nice.

    I like to know things like how long it takes you to paint such a challenging portion of what is already an amazing painting. And I deeply admire your patience and work ethic, not just to develop the skills but then to wring every possible ounce of those skills out and into a session of painting. Great stuff. Great belly.

  2. Thanks Ed! I've spent a lot of time thinking about Leah's belly, I guess. Going back to the first belly post, I realized that was about her belly too. I will not rest until Leah's belly is the most famous belly in art history.

    I'm glad you enjoy the technical details I get into, not frequently enough, on the blog. And I appreciate your positive evaluation of my approach to skills. They're such a hassle to obtain, it seems like a shame not to figure out good uses for them once you've got some of them. But I'd still like to build more...

  3. So eloquently put Daniel. I feel I am just emerging from a period where nothing I have painted has worked. Apart from the panic of deadlines, even worse is the dread that you really have 'lost it', that ephemeral ability to mark make.

    The belly, and the rest of the figure, looks beautiful.

  4. Daniel,You've made me laugh out of a sense of relief and the comedy in someone elses pain that you you know so well for yourself! I read your facebook post also but couldn't comment because F.B. was playing up on me. I also find it amazing that something I love so much can cause so much grief! I haven't been able to paint as much as I would like for a number of years due to one thing or another and every time I have a break I wonder if I have forgotten how to paint. Then I can't wait to start and it feels great until I come upon some stumbling block and feel like trashing the canvas! LOL! But I am beginning to learn if I am having trouble it is usually due to not observing the subject intently enough. Like you said, painting can be plain hard work but the rewards far outweigh the frustration. I only have a few paintings I am proud of and they have all had aspects that were difficult to overcome but with hard work and observation was able to pull them together.I guess what i'm trying to say is so many times artists make it sound like a magical process whereby the brush takes over and the painting paints itself. It makes you then wonder if you have any ability yourself! O.K. I've crapped on enough, Great blog and inspiring in a different way. Daniel you have indeed captured the luminescence of the macrobiota and the torso of Leah is superb! Soft and fleshy and a beautful palette. Howard.

  5. Pam -

    Hello - I'm finally getting down to replying! I'm glad you feel like you're coming out of a fruitless period, and that my description of the difficulties involved in my own process rang true for you. I am sure as shootin' you haven't lost it though. I'll look forward to seeing your new work. And thank you for the kind words about the Leah paintings. And for leaving a comment! I love getting a comment from you!

    Howard -

    Thank you too! I'm glad you like the work, and that you got some relief from knowing you're not the only one. It's true that the painting sometimes paints itself, but it's also true that sometimes you have to muscle through because the sonofabitch just doesn't want to go where you need it to. I try to apply my wife's observation to the problem of quality control: it is not enough that there be great bits - there must be no weak bits at all. Of course, I don't reach that, but that's what I'm working toward. I'm happy to hear you're coming out of your period of not painting!

  6. This might be the first time golf is mentioned on your blog. But the bit about great bits and their needing to not be any weak bits reminded me of something my brother in law (a former golf pro) told me long ago about golf that I will never forget.

    He said the key to improving is not making your good shots better, but making your bad shots better.

    It changed everything for me regarding golf. Because when you practice (I don't bother anymore, but I used to put a lot of effort into it), it's natural to want to practice stuff that goes pretty well. A favorite club or shot. But it doesn't help very much in real application. Because the weak bits are affecting your score a hell of a lot more than your good shots being good vs. great.

    So I don't know if that's a painting lesson, but it could certainly be a pretty decent life lesson.