Painting by Coincidence

Still in the fruitful dark, though at present it does not feel so fruitful! I have two works in progress but nothing new to show yet, so I will post an old painting from my last fairly consistent run of oil paintings around 2005.

Still Life Oil on Canvas (approximately A4 size, around 2005)
Still Life Oil on Canvas (approximately A4 size, around 2005)

This painting is hanging in my brother’s house, and on a recent visit I sneaked a photo of it.

Last night I tackled the next stage of the painting I considered the easiest of the two works in progress I painted in this post. It was a total disaster. My immediate reaction was to sink down into despair amidst the usual thoughts “you have no talent”, “this is a waste of time”, etc.

But after cleaning up brushes, palette and canvas(!), I walked home, took out a few books and looked at what I was doing wrong in a structured way. My conclusion was that I was working without a plan. Because I am working on an invented still life, I have no source to compare my paint colour to – my only source is the emotion or feeling I seek to express.

And on closer questioning I realized in this case I had no idea of what I wanted to convey. I was simply slopping on paint in the hope that something will magically appear (to be fair, this has often happened in the past).

As a computer programmer, I know a term “programming by coincidence” – which means that sometimes we write a computer program that works, but we are not quite sure why (it happens!). We had a basic idea of what to do and when we compiled and ran the program, it worked, but we do not have a solid, structured idea of why.

So for me, it is going back to basics. This means a structured approach to painting. First: imprimatura using a beautiful, sensual colour. Next, drawings to create a concept of what I am after – the emotion or mood I seek to bring out of me. I have to see that picture quite clearly at the start, even though it may change drastically later on. Next: underpainting followed by more developed value painting, and finally adding colour and highlights with a limited pallet. Accept that this may take several days – in my case, it is probably best if it does take several days. I work in a more calm and focused way and don’t hold my breath for an hour while I “go for it and see what happens”.

I know this sounds like a recipe and can restrict growth, but I need to fall back on this until my confidence builds up again.

I noted above that the image I see in my mind at the start is very important, but that it could change a lot later on. To show just how much this could change (and still lead to an outcome I like), compare my final Painting #38 with the one below, which represents the painting in it’s initial stages:

Initial Stage of my Painting #38
Initial Stage of my Painting #38

As you will see if you compare the two, the images are very different. One is stormy and the other more serene. But somehow the essence of the painting, the mood I was after, is already there at the start. If it is not there, and if I have no clear idea how to go from a blank canvas to that imagined ideal, then I am lost.

As always, the danger for me is there to take all of this too seriously. Always I remind myself too lift my head and notice the stupendously beautiful world that is around us at times. It is truly a Blessing, and can be found anywhere:

A Blessing
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

James Wright, from Above the River

5 thoughts on “Painting by Coincidence

  1. It is so difficult to decipher (or operate) between structure, or a plan and painting by the cuff of our artistic sleeve, to find the happy medium. I think we all need some direction or plan and I know what you mean as you put it, a recipe can restrict growth. I have a pastel painting that I have been working on off and on….mainly off. I call it an “intuitive” painting in which I don’t have a plan, direction or even thoughts as I paint. I sit down, have the painting in front of me and by instinct go with which color or stroke, all by intuition (of course). There is no plan except to empty myself of expectation, demands, ideas and especially the end product. Sometimes I sit there as though waiting for something to happen, if I am patient and empty of self, I get the gist or direction then I start to move in that. It is disconcerting to say the least because I am a work orientated, expect the end results kind of person. The creative self is so difficult to marry up with our thinking and planning self. I am still working on that one! Thought provoking post! I wished that I discovered your blog sooner, but here I am. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comment Margaret. I think your “intuitive” painting is an excellent idea – would it not be a good idea to post “status updates” on it every now and then – you and your admirers (me included) could really benefit from seeing how such a painting evolves over months (or even years?). I think the state you describe “patient and empty of self” is such a essential element of being – not only for art, but being in general. But certainly I feel that the best creative work must always come from this place – even if it does leave us feeling anxious and vulnerable at times? I am so glad you are visiting my blog! Whenever I have time (normally over weekends), I try to go and look at your blog and also some others that I am fond of, so you may see me there from time to time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am sorry that your painting session was a disaster, but it happens — probably more so when one is winging it — and yet your approach has an enviable element of daring. Your account of programming makes me wonder how much computer technology is a form of neurological self-portraiture. Or maybe the programmer does know how he wrote the program, only he doesn’t know he knows it. Case of the left brain not knowing what the right brain is doing (?) Or Jungian archetypal something-or-other going on. Anyway. Wow. Such a fascinating post.

    Holy cow. The differences between those two versions is amazing. I was flipping back and forth between them.

    But the first thing I thought when I saw the painting at the top of this post and began reading about it’s being an earlier work was that here’s the ancestor of painting number two of the previous post — the more naturalistic predecessor of the semi-abstract sienna colored cup. All this is fascinating. Surely these objects are not just still life things. There’s a meaning or symbolism or something.

    I don’t think your procedures sound like a recipe at all. Sounds like there’s a great deal of space there for invention. Structure is not an enemy. Certain structure is always present even when we don’t think about it. Painting inside a rectangle is a form of structure. And your items there are so far from being a recipe — consider how many and how different could be the images that result as a consequence of such a plan. Another artist could work from your plan and the paintings would be utterly different. It’s an open and breathing sort of plan.

    Always a danger of caring too much …hmm … structure and emotion can work together. Anyway. I have to read this post again a couple times. It’s a lot to take in. Fabulous poem too, btw.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Aletha, your comment really blows my mind, you touch on several issues and your insight about this painting being similar to the cup in my previous post is food for thought. I agree with you 100% that structure is not an enemy, probably it is more like an anchor to keep us stable in stormy weather – but it has to be lifted now and then!

      Incidentally, as part of my “going back to basics”, I always re-read parts of Richard Schmidt’s “Ala Prima: Everything I know about Painting” book. In it he writes that he has always had trouble with the idea that the path to meaningful art somehow arises naturally and that any influence from outside (e.g. structured instruction) will contaminate the purity of the interior process. Schmidt says further: “I’ve always had trouble with that. Bach and Shakespeare and Michelangelo were all fine craftsmen who built on what came before, and they were not stupid. Even Mozart occasionally listened to his father.”. I fully agree!

      On another note, I have often been amazed, while I program things that are quite complex at times – part of me watches and realizes if I have to stop now and “think” about what I am doing I will get stuck very quickly. It is a cognitive, analytical function (probably left brain), and yet it is also a dance-like synthesis that pushes the process forward. Mysterious, stupendous, really. [Just to clarify – this is more like “flow” or “being in the zone”, and not the same as “programming by coincidence” – this latter term refers to laziness, not checking and making sure we know what we are doing – not something I strive for when programming!]

      I keep being drawn to representative paintings, but where I am at present I feel the edge of my comfort zone lies where representational painting meets abstract painting. My last post deals with this.

      Liked by 1 person

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