Old Stuff, New Start

Did I ever post the finished version of this piece? I don't think I did. I pulled it together sometime last summer. It's watercolor, gouache and colored pencil on paper. Size: can't remember exactly but it's on a sheet of 22" x 30" paper.

And recently I finished this little oil painting, the last of the people-turning-into-trees:

It's 16" x 12". Well, basically finished:  the right foot is a little stubby in the toe department, but I'm not feeling too urgent about fixing that right now.

But on both of these, the part I most enjoyed was painting the leaves from life. And it got me wondering why I couldn't just give myself permission to paint a plant, if that's what I really wanted to do. Why did it have to be more complicated than that?

So I've started a new painting, working from the same philodendron that modeled for me before, newly arranged and trussed up with thread.

Wish me luck.

New Space

Well, that was a depressing post that I’ve left up for way too long now. In real time, shortly after writing it, something turned around inside me and I didn’t feel so hopeless anymore. In fact, I feel re-energized. I love my new backyard studio. In fact, I don’t know how I ever painted without it. And it’s not because the space is sooooooooo amazing — it’s not. Its square footage is only adequate (17’ X 13’) and the ceiling is downright low — a mere 7 1/2 feet. However, it really is like going to a different place when I walk the 15 or so feet across the yard to it. Totally unlike the miserable 6 month period when I tried to paint in what had been the master bedroom of our old apartment in Watertown, MA. Yuck. Painting in the living quarters is not for me. But it is so awesome to be able to just duck into the house for a cup of tea, to cook something for myself for lunch, to not have to set off for the studio like an arctic explorer, armed with sufficient edibles to keep me sustained for a long haul, and feeling like if I’m making the schlep, it’d better be worthwhile. No fucking around allowed.

But now! I can fuck around! I can just dip in, do a thing or two, or look around and leave. I can work for a couple of hours in the evening after dinner, something I NEVER did when my studio was in a separate building miles away. I feel nicely apart, in my own art space, and also close to home, in a comfy, non-stifling way. I can’t wait for spring, for our garden to get going. Then it’ll be even better.

Anyway, I’ve been long on whining, short on pictures for some times now. Boring! You may remember a painting that I started this summer, inspired by one of Jesse’s poems (well, probably not — why would you?).  I picked it up again and have been trying to finish it. Here’s the three latest versions, most recent at the bottom:

It’s at the point where when I look back on the earlier iterations they look much better to me:  more open, airier. Of course back then, they looked empty, like not enough was going on. So I’ve been stuffing more and more bits into it, and now it looks overstuffed. Time to edit, obliterate, hack away. Prune. Give it some space.


woman-headcase-23 woman-headcase-22

I've been bearing down hard on this painting, trying to finish it. Which can result in a certain amount of progress, but usually backfires after a while by making me feel completely burnt out. I sit and stare at the painting, sit and stare, and cannot think of what to do to it. It's utterly frustrating. I took the weekend off, but I'm not sure I'm feeling terribly inspired today, either.

I've been reading the dictionary again. Following are some new favorites:

Enchase — 1.  encase, enclose:  set (a diamond enchased in a gold ring) 2.  ornament, decorate as a: to cut or carve in relief:  engrave b: inlay (a table enchased with ivory) 3. obs:  to enclose solemnly:  enshrine

Bridewell — London house of correction established in the 16th century: house of correction, jail, prison.

Boatel — a waterside hotel equipped with docks to accommodate persons traveling by boat

Alchera — [native name in Australia]: dreamtime

Aliquant — being a part of a number or quantity but not dividing it without leaving a remainder (5 is an aliquant part of 16)

Aliquot — 1. contained an exact number of times in something else (5 is an aliquot part of 15); opposed to aliquant 2.  fractional

Aliter — otherwise

Little-ease — a place of confinement (as an extremely small prison cell) or confining device (as a pillory) making it impossible for a prisoner to have even ordinary comfort or freedom of movement

Litham — a strip of cloth wound round the head covering all but the eyes and worn by Tuaregs of the Sahara desert

Fielden — of or having to do with fields; rustic

Firefall — a tree whose fall is caused by the partial destruction of its roots in a ground fire


woman-tree-legs15 This painting is stuck right now.  I want to finish it, and move my thoughts on to other paintings, very badly. But I just can't figure out what to do to make that happen. It is a kind of failure of vision:  I look and look but the forms stubbornly refuse to coalesce into resolution. All I can do is wait it out:  wait for the moment when I look at the painting and the solution - or at least the next action - proposes itself to my mind's eye. It might be a small adjustment, or something large and radical. But no matter how much I desire this revelation, it seemingly cannot be forced.

The legs are basically done, except for the right foot which needs a final pass. The main issue is that I can't figure out how to resolve the foliage, and I'm hampered by the fact that the potted peony, which I had been using as a model, has died:


When I bought it, at the beginning of September, I knew that it wouldn't make it through the winter as a potted indoor plant, but I was blithely certain that the painting would be finished by Christmas - three whole months away! How could I not finish a 16" x 12" painting in three goddamn months??


Indirection, oil on linen, 24" x 24", ongoing. Some years ago I worked out a nice little metaphor for the path a painting follows toward completion:  an asymptote, a curving line that forever approaches tangent with the x or y axis but never gets there. The concept of the asymptote is perhaps the only fragment that remains from my career in high school mathematics, and it likely survives only because of what I felt to be its poetic pathos:  the idea of the endless approach, of getting closer by infinitesimally minute increments, but never meeting; of shooting out forever into space yet never making landfall.

Anyway, I looked it up to check my recalled definition, now 15 odd years out from my last math class, and I found I had the gist, but had incorrectly identified the curved line as the asymptote, which in fact refers to the straight line of the axis - the line that is never reached.  The word comes from the Greek asymptotus - "not meeting." Webster says it is “a line that is the limiting position of a tangent to a curve as its point of contact recedes indefinitely along an infinite branch of the curve.”

I’m a bit thrown, having to adjust my analogy, although I suppose it is simply a question of re-labelling. The painting is still the yearning, thwarted curve; but it is not an asymptote, which instead describes what the painting - or rather I - strive for, the unmoving, straight line of completion, an unattainable horizon.

(Yet how can two lines verge so close as to be indistinguishable, but never merge? To me, this is incomprehensibility in microcosm, the infinite parsing of zero; as staggering as the more grandiose and equally unthinkable infinity of the universe, writ so large across the emptiness of the sky that the only possible response is to ignore it. To make the sky the inside of a box-top, a flat blue lid clapped over my daily course.)

Several years ago, a sentence came into my mind that has lingered, perplexing me, not being in the habit of receiving and parsing private orphic utterances:  “Only the unfinished has life.”  I saw how this was literally true - in that a “finished” life necessarily requires a person’s death - but couldn’t figure out what it might mean in relation to actual paintings. But I begin to see now that this does not mean something as obvious as leaving paintings in the tantalizing but mannered state of non finito, but something far more delicate and interesting: to intuit when a work has come to a certain balancing point, a kind of energized repose, when continued earnest effort will only deaden something lively. To leave a work while it still vibrates, subtly, in its course toward the asymptote, to not push a painting so far along in search of an idea of completion that this vital pulse becomes too small to detect. I still find this maddeningly difficult. Apparently unable to stop myself, I keep pushing things till they lie flat on the wall, overthrown.

Apropos of this I find myself quoting yet again from Anne Truitt, whose temperament I feel a hopeful kinship with, and whom I have constructed out of her ruthlessly lucid, deeply humane writing as my own personal sage. This very morning in the chilly sapphire pre-dawn I dog-eared a page in Prospect at the following passage about her own process of finishing work.

Parting from a work of art is a skill. During the 1950s while I was teaching myself how to be an artist, I used to keep bearing down on the work under my hand until I felt it was finished. For some years I failed to realize that each work had a timing of its own, that in some subtle way it finished itself. Once I had learned to pay more attention to it instead of to myself, I began to notice that nothing in art is ever “finished.” I could transfer many of my habits to my work but I could not enjoy the satisfaction of having completed a task - as I was accustomed to finishing the dishes or making the beds or completing an academic paper. Instead, I learned to catch the moment when a work trembled on the threshold of becoming an entity, and to take my hand off it, leave it be. By the time that my work began to appear in my mind in the 1960s, I had fixed this phenomenon as a fact and could accept the corollary fact that every work I made was a failure when looked at in the light of what I had conceived that it was going to be. No matter how faithfully I folded concept into a material form, something evanescent and ineffable remained aloof. Concept resisted facture, and matter resisted the imposition of concept.

Indirection, oil on linen, 24" x 24", ongoing. (most recent stage)

Apropos of Finishing

I mentioned in an earlier post that I am reading the journals of the sculptor Anne Truitt. This morning I re-read a passage from Daybook which touches so directly on the difficulties of finishing a piece of work that I had to post it, given that my last post dealt with my own struggle in that regard.

An undertaking, [Gurdjieff] says, begins with a surge of energy that carries it a certain distance toward completion. There then occurs a drop in energy, which must be lifted back to an effective level by conscious effort, in my experience by bringing to bear hard purpose. It is here that years of steady application to a specific process can come into play. It is, however, in the final stage, just before completion, that Gurdjieff says pressure mounts almost unendurably to a point at which it is necessary to bring to bear an even more special kind of effort. It is at this point, when idea is on the verge of bursting into physicality, that I find myself meeting maximum difficulty. I sometimes have the curious impression that the physical system seems in its very nature to resist its invasion by idea. The desert wishes to lie in the curves of its own being:  It resists the imposition of the straight line across its natural pattern. Matter itself seems to have some mysterious intransigency.

It is at this critical point that most failures seem to me to occur. The energy required to push the original concept into actualization, to finish it, has quite a different qualitative feel from the effort needed to bring it to this point. It is this strange, higher-keyed energy to which I find I have to pay attention - to court, so to speak, by living in a particular way. Years of training build experience capable of holding a process through the second stage. The opposition of purpose to natural indolence, the friction of this opposition, maintained year after year, seems to create a situation that attracts this mysterious third force, the curious fiery energy required to raise an idea into realization. Whether or not it does so attract remains a mystery.


indecision-3 I hadn't worked on this painting at all in several months when my friend Jesse, who runs the Loggernaut reading series here in Portland, asked me if he could use one of my paintings for the website. I sent him over a few images and he settled on 'Indirection' as being the most congruent with this month's theme - 'Hopes.' Seeing it up there on the website made me feel a bit more motivated to actually finish the damn thing. I always seem to run out of energy right at the critical point of finishing a painting for good, and never taking my hand to it again. It's as though at the final stretch the painting becomes almost a dead weight, something needing to be physically shoved over the last hump of a hill. All the excitement and energy of starting, of the various discoveries one makes during the process have dissipated, and what is left of the myriad of possibilities one started with - everything that could be! - is only this: what ended up. Results. Something from which the raw excitement of potentiality has drained. A certain resignation is required in accepting this, and getting on with the last rites.

The aperture through which I access the painting, from being absolutely wide open at the beginning, progressively narrows, so that by the end I must squeeze myself through a tiny slot to get at the work. It has its own requirements now, and I must accommodate myself to it, rather than, as at the outset, making up my own rules as I go along. Somewhere along the path, the balance of power shifts to the painting, and I suppose there may be a kernel of resentment at having to submit myself to my own creation. Paintings tend to hang around for months, three-quarters or nine-tenths finished, but always with dissastifactions clinging to them that I contemplate and don't feel up to addressing. More pleasurable to work on something else, something newer. And less risky. So fatally easy to ruin things if the hand is not counter-balanced with particular attention!

This painting is in that neglected zone of 'almost done.' The hands need a bit of final polishing, which I find tedious. And the field of marks needs resolving. I realized when I saw the painting on Loggernaut that I wanted the outer edges of the diamond to be darker, almost vignetted, and and the scale of the marks to increase in size as they move outwards to the margins. Working on this painting involves a time delay - because all the brushstrokes overlap each other like threads in cloth, I have to put a set of marks down, and then wait a day for them to dry before I can put new marks over them. This involves exercising patience, perhaps the most important and weakest muscle in my studio practice. I made myself sick this week using Liquin to make the paint dry faster, something I haven't done in a while. I'm more sensitive to such chemicals as I get older, which is probably a good deterrent from using them in the first place.

Another Day's Work

girl-tree-legs-12 By all rights, this painting should be feeling close to finished by now. And yet, it isn't. The problem is that I can't seem to put my finger on the problem. I only know it just doesn't look right to me yet. The foliage is not resolved, somehow. Too piecey, perhaps? I feel a dangerous need to obliterate something, and then fix it. Eeek. It's probably good I'm going away for a couple of days for Thanksgiving.

Another Tree-Person

As promised, here is the second "tree-person" painting that I'm working on. Dave, incidentally, thinks it's hilarious that I call them "tree-people" as a place-holder name until I come up with their real title. It makes him think of those Californian hippie/activists who live in trees to prevent loggers from cutting them down. Not really my intention with this work . . . but I'm glad he's amused. I've decided that the unit of progress is a day's work, so all of the photos you'll see below contain a day's worth of painting, more or less.

The underpainting:

First layer:

Second go round:

Starting with the leaves:

Filling in the foliage:

And on . . .

and on . . .

and on . . .

Where things stand currently: 

A detail shot of an area I'm happy with:



I begin to see the finished painting starting to emerge at this point. This part of the process usually makes me incredibly anxious, because I'm afraid I'm going to fuck up the parts I already like trying to fix up the parts that don't quite work yet. What I try to do at this stage in the proceedings is to slow way down, and only work on the painting when I have a very clear, confident idea of what to do, and how to do it. No more playing around with various ideas to see what might work. How many potentially good paintings have I ruined by over-working? Oh lord, it makes me depressed just thinking about it. Finishing a painting is hard, though: Dave often asks me how I know when something is done. One answer that would be ideal, if I could follow my own advice, is that a painting is finished when there aren't too many parts of it that annoy me too terribly. When I can live with the level of my inevitable feeling of dissatisfaction. It's kind of a zen-like goal: just enough to finish, and no more. But getting there - and more importantly, knowing when to stop - is a tricky balancing act.

In the future, my plan is to post progress reports on various paintings as I go, not a giant fell-swoop post like this, but I haven't quite figured out how to organize the blog in a smart way yet, so bear with me while I work it out.