Less is More

h20-peony

I am enamored of this greenish yellow color, which goes from a pale verdant gold to a murky, dark algae.

Working in watercolor is good practice for me in doing just enough. In holding back. In stopping. In conceiving something clearly at the outset, and carrying through, not second guessing myself if the process unfolds more slowly than I hoped. In knowing the limits of the medium:  unlike oils, you cannot push past a certain point. It cannot be overworked and then turned around, the way you can sometimes save oil paintings by pushing too far, and then still farther. Once a certain freshness is gone, it cannot be regained. Watercolors, unlike oil paints, do not embody the possibility of their own resurrection. It is a more fragile medium.

I felt as though I were walking on a kind of tightrope making this. I was aware of the balance of my body, and my breath, the way I am when I practice yoga. Judiciously deciding when to move and when to stay my hand. It seems to me that so much of what I need to learn, as an artist, and as a human being, is this: when to stay my hand. When Paul Newman died recently, I heard a re-broadcast of an interview with him on Fresh Air, and something he said so struck me in its simple relevance that I wrote it on the studio wall. Terry Gross asked him about his career and he said he wished he had a chance to take another crack at his early films. She asked him why, and he said, “Less is more. I was working awful hard in most of the early stuff.”  I sense that I am still very much in that place, early in the arc of my development, still working awful hard at everything.

The feeling of performing a balancing act is due to the specific constraints I place myself under when I work from life. My feet must stay within the outlines I have traced on the floor around them, and I must not sway too far in one direction or another, or slump (as I am wont to do) into my customary hunched posture. I must continually close my left eye, as I recheck the placement of my head relative to the plant, and the plant to the grid I have drawn onto the wall behind it, which corresponds to a grid on the paper before me. This chain of contingency built, link by link, in order to control both the overall composition, the array of shapes within the rectangle of the page, and also to be able to unravel the specific & intricate tangle of leaves and stems before me. It is both an intellectual and bodily task. I analyze and interpret visual data, but my capacity to do so is based on my physical stamina. You wouldn’t believe how tiring standing still in one place can be.

In all of this, I establish parameters and boundaries and yet hope to transcend them, to surprise myself somehow. I build a structure inside which I can, carefully, relax.

h20-leaf-drawings

I want to make more watercolors, to reinvigorate myself and make works on paper in a day or two, instead of the months I spend on an oil painting. It is refreshing. And yet I know from disappointing experience that for me there is no faster way to undermine my own expectations than to set up a nice, lofty, unrealistic goal, something like: from now on, I will make four watercolors a week. In dark moments, I fear that I am lazy, unable to provide for myself sufficient impetus to rise as early as I should, to efficiently fill and utilize my hours. But I hope that I may yet be subject to improvements, and that my work may benefit from them one day, as well.

Of course, I know that to try and “improve myself” in order to improve my work is to doom the undertaking from the start. Refining one’s consciousness cannot have any particular end other than itself, or it perverts the entire enterprise. Although the process brings with it many side benefits, it is short-circuited if they are conflated with the primary motivation. It is a paradox. You have to genuinely want only a little stillness and clarity, and in going after it, your life and work can benefit in material ways. But if you’re really after stillness as an aid to “self-improvement,” you mostly get more anxiety in the pursuit of yet another result.  Listening to Paul Newman talk about working so hard as a young actor, I recalled a sentence from the Bhagavad Gita which sometimes rings in my mind when I meditate, quiet yet sonorous:  in truth, I do nothing at all.

How to take that paradoxical knowledge into the studio, the site of all my most freighted doings?