The Monthly Newsletter

Dave suggested recently that perhaps I should be a pamphleteer instead of a blogger, I guess because I don’t really blog they way one is supposed to, with shorter but more frequent updates, instead of monthly (or so) magnum opi. I usually procrastinate putting up a post because I don’t feel like dealing with the whole process of downloading jpgs, adjusting them to the best of my (minimal) ability in Photoshop, and then uploading them, and by the time I get around to it, the post has usually ballooned to an unmanageable size. I want to be better, truly I do, not least because I am always bummed when the bloggers I read don’t have a new post up for a long time. In my own defense, the whole photo thing is made much worse here in Italy by the glacial speed of the internet connection. I takes almost a full 5 minutes to upload a single photograph.

I hate to be cliched . . . but there is something devastating about the light here in Tuscany. It really is golden. Especially in the hour or so before sunset, the most magical time of the day and the best time to paint, but also the most difficult, because the effects of the light are so fleeting. The shadows lengthen and purple, dramatizing previously bland green fields. The haze in the valley drifts into orange. Up here, on the hill, we can see all the way across the valley with its patchwork of fields and toy town to the blue hills distant on the other side. It feels as though we are held in abeyance here, above the world, spectators to the ending of the day.

I’ve been painting a lot, sometimes to the point of physical exhaustion, and it makes me so happy. These little landscapes aren’t going to take the world by storm, they may even be utterly cliched ventures in a field, in a that has been, as one of my profs told me, in a kindly-damning-with-faint-praise sort of way, “pretty thoroughly explored.” But I don’t care. I find that I don’t feel particularly attached to them in the usual egoistic way I feel attached to my paintings, because the experience of being alive while making them was so profoundly pleasurable. Usually I am so attached to wanting every painting I made to be A MASTERPIECE that it cramps the process. Makes me unwilling to entertain true risk. With these, I’ve been making one a day, or every two days, and when one isn’t what I hoped it’d be, I just let it go and move onto the next. I don’t know why it’s taken me 10 years to get to be able to do that. I guess I’m just a slow learner.

Painting en plein air is a kind of physical meditation for me: standing in one place, breathing, feeling my core muscles relax, looking, making a mark, looking again, mixing colors, squinting to see the world as a kaleidoscope of colored shapes that all fit together, and trying to create a correlation on the canvas in front of me. It is completely absorbing — I do not notice the passage of time except as my arms tire of holding the palette and my hands eventually begin to tremble, the sweat runs down inside my clothes, and as I become anxious about the light changing before I get it all down. I find it freeing to recognize that the the world is completely overwhelming, that there is more in it than you can or even should try to account for. To let most of it go. To ignore all the surface details in search of the larger, underlying relationships. Trying to keep it fresh, to put down the paint and get out, to not futz, to let it breathe. I finished a painting a few days ago and I don’t remember having previously had such strong a sense of being absolutely done in, physically and mentally exhausted, but in such a deeply satisfying way. I sat down on the ground and closed my eyes, let the golden light seep through my eyelids, listened to the dull clanging of the sheep bells in the meadow below me, the incessant murmuring hum of the bees (there are a lot of hives around here) and the roar and grunt of someone running a tractor in the adjacent olive grove. I could’ve lain down and slept right there, except that I was also hungry, and so motivated to schlep everything back home for dinner. Later, when I looked at the painting I didn’t think it was so hot, but somehow I didn’t care that much, because I could still remember the vitality of the experience of making it. You’d think that having a great experience painting would guarantee making an awesome painting, but I guess not necessarily, unfortunately.

The teaching is going pretty well, I think. It’s a funny thing, teaching painting. On the one hand, I have a lot of useful information to share with students, but on the other hand, people can only really take in the information as they need it, you can tell them something but unless they’re grappling with that particular problem at the exact moment, it doesn’t make sense. Or at least, they don’t absorb it. Also, there is certainly more than one way to skin a cat; within certain principles there are a lot of different ways to make a painting, and I try and be cautious about imposing my own ideas on students. People have to figure out their own way of painting, as I did. It’s often a little tricky judging who can take their criticism straight up, and who needs it sugar-coated. Sometimes I miscalculate, and then I feel terrible. It’s a little like being a doctor: first, do no harm. Because, in the end, who cares if someone makes bad art? I mean, I do. But it’s not like anyone really gets hurt in any quantitative way. On the other hand, if they were music students, wouldn’t they want me to tell them if they were playing out of tune? It’s a balancing act. Just like everything else, I guess.

Next post: all the paintings I’ve made since I've been in Italy, in chronological order. I can't take any more uploading, today.