My Process — Part 1

grease_can

I have read that on blogs painters should discuss their work and I suppose I have been doing that albeit mostly indirectly. But maybe I should also discuss how I work more explicitly. How I work depends mainly upon what I want to paint. Some subjects seem just fine the way they are. A magnificent landscape of ice and snow by Lake Michigan doesn’t need any help, I just try to paint it as best I can to show my dazzled excitement in discovering the forms. I may decide to use a palette knife, impasto and/or ground glass to make the image more tactile, but my goal is to show it in its terrible beautiful.

There are, however, many subjects that would be boring or dull or just “whatever” without some considerable thought going into elements of design and execution because they have been done by so many painters for centuries. Still life is a good example. Often I like to paint objects that have personal meaning. I like to think about them and their connection to my life throughout the painting process. I view still life, however, as a problem at this time. Traditional painting of traditional objects is not interesting to me. I love what has been done in the past, but redoing it now would be to imitate, not to create. On the other end of the spectrum, cubism has pretty well covered the deconstruction of the genre, so I have to look for other ways to present my objects.

I should stress here that I have no ambition to be a still life painter or to specialize in any particular genre. My tendency has long been to paint what interests me and the reason that something interests me enough to want to make a work of it varies. Faces and bodies of friends, objects from some period in my life or views of the environment that I find interesting and more are what I work with. If there is any through-line it is that I paint that which can be easily overlooked, discarded or ignored.

So back to still life. The painting at the top of this story is of a can of grease. I have been looking at that can for most of my life. When I was a small boy, my father bought it home from his job as an advertising copywriter on the Standard Oil account. I thought it was just amazing and I’m not sure why. It was a bold shiny red with an industrial look that I’d never seen in a can, which always looked more like Campbell’s Soup. Also, my father got it from “connections,” so it seemed “exclusive.” Anyway, it sat on the shelf in my parents basement for decades. I often saw it when I came to visit and I never gave it much thought, except maybe a fleeting backward glance to my youth when such a little thing could elicit a strong, lasting memory.

Time moves on, I get older, I move back to my hometown to raise my own family and take care of my parents who are fast becoming feeble, my father dies. I see the can practically every day sitting on the shelf and one day I decided to paint it. Just like that. But I had a problem because as I looked at it I realized there was no single view that would do it for me, I wanted to paint the whole thing, front, back, top and especially the bottom (I began to understand more about a possible emotion behind cubism: total possession). There was no chance that it could be shown in any conventional still life format.

I thought of Andy Warhol (how could I not!), his cans and pop art. I was also recently brushing up on color interaction. I decided to put them together in a way that would preserve the “natural appearance” of the can while letting me show all the aspects that I wanted in a format which I found interesting.

I suppose I could have taken photographs and used my computer to put together an image that would have rendered a convincing traditional composition, but that would not have answered my desire to transcend the personal, sentimental aspects of the subject. Art must appeal to art and by that I mean it must, though some agency acknowledge and interact with the times no matter where the initial inspiration comes from.

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