working from life

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.

Moving House

condensation view 1 For a long time, I’ve been so unhappy in the studio, and with my work. In fact, feeling miserable was the primary motivation for starting this blog a year or so ago. I wanted to do something that made me feel that I was at least a little bit connected to the outside world, that the hours I spent in the studio were not meaningless, uncounted by anyone except myself, and to post updates on my slow daily progress on the internet, so that, even if nobody ever saw them, it was at least a gesture, some small public proof that I existed.

(You know, if a tree falls but no one is there, et cetera et cetera, only my version was, if a painter spends 8 hours a day in the studio, but never finishes a painting, let alone shows it to anyone else . . . is she really an artist? (And how long before she goes completely MAD?))

And the months wore on, and paintings didn’t get finished, and I got more and more fed up with myself and bored by the limits of my own brain, and less and less happy to spend my days within the narrow four walls of the studio. Life was going on outside, without me.

condensation view 2

So I kind of just stopped for a while, this past summer. Not completely. But largely. I experimented with acrylic paint, with an eye to having a less-toxic alternative in the event of pregnancy & motherhood. And basically hated it. And got really depressed thinking about having to give up painting when we decide to try and have a baby if I couldn’t find a workable alternative. (Even though I was already depressed and not really painting anyway—there’s nothing like the thought of having something taken away from you to make you desperately cling to it.) I started a collaboration with my friend Jesse, a poet, which got off to a promising start, and then stalled due to my lack of follow-through (although I hope it could potentially enter a new and different phase, maybe less trying to create a specific correlation between a poem and a painting and more of an ongoing conversation between makers of different kinds).

And I thought a lot about happiness, and what Art Means to Me, and whether I could maybe just stop doing it, and what other kind of job I might be able to do without hating it too much and maybe making actual money at, and whether being afraid that if you don’t have children you’ll regret it terribly later on when it’s too late is really a sound enough basis on which to launch a pregnancy attempt or whether really, truly, sincerely wanting to be a parent in the full knowledge of how it will likely lay waste to your life as you know it is the only ethically valid reason for bringing another human being into the world.

I didn’t answered any of those questions, really, but I did come to a few realizations apropos of my studio practice — that is to say, painting — the most important being that no, I cannot give it up. Painting is such a fundamental part of my identity that even if I stopped doing the activity, I would still think of myself as a painter. David pointed out that in my horrible nightmare, I was going to be caught on the evidence of my painting glove, which he thought spoke psychological volumes about my self-identification as an artist.

Another realization, which was not so much of a realization as the compounding reinforcement of a feeling that I’ve had for some time, was that I am happiest, truly happy, when I’m working from life. Looking at something in the world. And conversely, that I am not happy working out of my own head, despite years of trying. I’m just not that imaginative. I end up feeling sterile, and the paintings stunted. I had a conversation with Catherine Murphy as I was about to graduate from Yale about working from life, how I thought that was the direction I was going to go in. So I've had this inkling that it would be the right process for me for a while. I don’t know why I’ve resisted it for three plus years, though. My old friends, fear and doubt, no doubt.

condensation view 3

Another snippet of the Fairfield Porter interview with Paul Cummings:

PC: Do you think that painting is more of an emotional thing than an intellectual thing?

FP: No, I don’t think it’s more emotional or more intellectual. I think it’s a way of making the connection between yourself and everything.

PC: How do you mean “and everything”?

FP: Well, I mean “and reality,” which is everything. In other words, you connect yourself to everything, which includes yourself.

PC: Through the painting?

FP: Yes, through the process of painting. And the person who looks at it gets it vicariously. If you follow music you vicariously live the composer’s efforts.

PC: But don’t you think the person who looks at a painting has en entirely different relationship to it than the person who has painted it?

FP: Well, for one thing they see something that is hard for the person who’s painted it to see. I mean they see the person who has painted it and they see his emotions, which he maybe doesn’t see.

Porter’s brief, unsentimental description of painting from life resonated with my own experience very strongly:  that it’s about connection, both inward and outward. Restating it in more flowery language won’t improve it, so I won’t try. Only: YES.

I’ve been walking around these days and finding the world to be almost shockingly beautiful. Feeling connected, feeling awake, looking at everything more than I ever have before. Everywhere I look I see paintings, waiting to be made. Forms and shapes and color masses before me coalesce into paintings, group and regroup into new compositions, waiting for someone to translate them into paint. Houses, trees, cars, telephone wires, our television, a wind-up red ladybug, the cord to my laptop, the view from my bathroom window. Nothing too mundane to be beautiful. Where even to start?

condensation view 4

I’m in a hurry to finish this painting of our orange living room, because, among other developments, we’re buying our first house and moving in less than two weeks! It’s almost incredibly to me, but true. With gratitude to parents and grandparents for making it possible. So I hope I can pull off this painting, in the midst of the packing and the frenzy. And I’m looking forward to all the new paintings I hope to make in our new home.

Orange Room 1

Orange Room 2

Orange Room 3

Orange Room 4

Orange Room plant detail

Orange Room house detail

Orange Room computer detail

Getting it Wrong

My painting is bad enough to warrant constant practice. —Fairfield Porter


You have to get it wrong before you can get it right.


Or maybe the italics should be: You have to do it wrong before you can get it right.


This sentence came to mind this morning while I was painting away, happily. (Happily! Did you read that?? I have not painted “happily” in lo these many moons. Indeed, I did not know if I would ever care to paint again for the better part of a year now.)


I’m painting an interior scene—the living room in our apartment, which is painted a melony shade of orange. We didn’t choose it—our landlady, Jean, did—but luckily orange is maybe my favorite color. Also, it helps fight the Portland winter grays.


I’ve never done this before—painted an interior. Just set up and painted right in my own house. But I’m loving it. I’m not sure how well the painting is going to turn out. I’m not sure it looks like anything right now. But every day when I paint on it, I experience pleasure. Pleasure in the process of painting. And when I’m done, I always experience a bit of a let down when I look critically at the painting, and it doesn’t look as good as it felt. But I’m not letting that distract me too much. I think this could be a sea-change.


I was reading my Fairfield Porter book, a painter I love, and envying his practice. Painting his household, his family, his rooms & furniture, the landscape around him. And I found myself wanting to do the same. And feeling like I couldn’t. That it somehow wasn’t serious enough as an enterprise. That it was also boring, and bourgeois, and archaic, and not a cool contemporary thing to do. And that it wasn’t a focused enough project, that it would be scattered and piecemeal. And then I just thought, fuck it. Having a more narrowly focused project (pictures of figures turning into trees, for example) wasn’t working for me anyway. So maybe I’m not a project artist. And this feeling that my overall work has to be “about” something, preferably something based on critical theory is just a hangover from graduate school. That is to say, more or less bullshit. And maybe, just maybe, things will come together somehow anyway. Over time. If I can manage to keep painting over the Valkyrie chorus of my own nay-saying.


I am not trying to interpret any slogan or phrase in my painting. The visual arts are non-verbal and direct; modern education is verbal and indirect . . . The experience of a painter while he is painting is about the nature of the paint—that is his most direct experience—all other things, like what he is looking at outside the painting, what he remembers, what he thinks about with the left-over part of his mind, all talking to himself, etc., and all translation of outside sensation, insofar as they have to do with the painting, have to do with illusion. Therefore the realism of my paintings is its illusory side. What illusions this evokes in the spectator is mostly beyond my knowledge.

—Fairfield Porter, Interview with Paul Cummings, 1968


The thing that I am experiencing very intensely with this painting—besides, of course, always and forever “the nature of the paint,” as Fairfield says—has to do with getting it wrong. By which I mean, when I go to paint anything, I initially always have it in not-quite-the-right place, and not-quite-the-right color. And I used to be very discouraged by this and think, why can’t I get it right? If I were a better artist, I would get it right from the beginning. But what I’m seeing more and more clearly is the utter fallacy of this idea. In fact, the only way I can see how something should look is by painting it and then seeing how it isn’t quite there yet. I have to paint it first so that I have something to compare with the world in front of me. That first attempt is not just a regrettable error, to hasten past on the march to goodness and rightness and doneness, it’s an unavoidable, deeply necessary part of the process. The wrongness is what gets you to rightness. Only actually making something allows you to see how it can be adjusted, moved, tweaked, changed, to better reflect reality or express yourself. You have to write the first draft before you can write the second draft, let alone the final draft.


I’m not sure I’ve fully expressed how revolutionary this is to me. Maybe it sounds damningly obvious. But to actually experience this in action feels nothing short of of revelatory, hitting home with the force only a truism can bring to bear when you suddenly realize that its cliched wisdom actually applies to your own, unique existence. (And yes, air quotes and eye-rolling accompany that "unique.")


And furthermore, if I actually just painted a painting perfectly straight from the get-go, everything in the right place, nothing to be scraped out, or moved or repainted ten times, the surface of the painting would be about the most boring surface ever. Smooth and flat, with no history of its own making:  no brushmarks, no depth, no layers, no impasto, no glimmers of colors showing through other colors, in short: none of the physical qualities that I love about paintings. The haptic stuff. The textures you want to touch. The actual paint, built up on a surface that both makes an image and is a thing itself. All the reasons I started painting in the first place. Whoa.


You have to get it wrong before you can get it right.

Jack is Back

jack-10 jack-9

I got a new plant to replace the mysteriously blighted vine I was using as a model for this painting in its earlier incarnation. It is a kind of camellia that can grow into quite a large shrub or even a small tree, and which one sees in yards all over Portland. It has dark glossy leaves, and in the spring, an almost shocking profusion of bright yet plasticky flowers, a cheap n' cheerful efflorescence, whose slight tackiness is exacerbated by the way they then fall to the ground in a thick, browning carpet, like litter left over after a parade.

I've been having some trouble negotiating my criteria for making these tree-people paintings. I get really into the working from life part, in which my criteria is to represent the leaves and stems and negative spaces between them accurately. So I’m painting the leaves in reference to the measuring marks on the wall behind the plant, but then I forget to evaluate how the leafy part is melding/interacting with the legs below, to gauge how the two halves are going to come together to make a whole painting.  I want the painted leaves to have a certain fidelity to their real-world source, but I also want them to fit into the world of the painting, which means looking like they grew out of a pair of legs. I’m trying to shuttle between working loosely, and being quite precise, and if the world were perfect, and I were a perfect painter, I would do everything loosely first and then just bang in the precise bits right at the end, in just the right places. Unfortunately, what generally happens is that I spend no small amount of time getting something just so, and then decide it’s in utterly the wrong place, and obliterate it and do it again somewhere else.

Speaking of moving things around, and even obliterating layers of work, I discovered a new painter online recently—Alex Kanevsky— and I really like his paintings (with the caveat that I haven’t seem any in person, and you never can tell how you’re going to react to the actual physical object). I’m envious of his painterliness—how I wish I were not such a tight-ass—and I was particularly taken with his description of his process in this interview.

Vivianite: Your use of motion, light and color is truly stunning, how did you invent or learn your technique?

Alex Kanevsky: I didn't really invent or learn it as a technique. I am a slow learner, so it developed over a long time. I am also fairly slow when it comes to actual painting. Slow but impatient. That can be a problem, but over time I figured out how to turn this contradiction into my own way of working. I can't do slow and methodical accumulation painting: I get bored with careful, planned sort of activity. I also depend on freshness of perception, what zen-buddists call "beginner's mind". That is difficult to sustain over a long period. After a while you are just not a beginner. So I work fast, trying to hit the right note every time. That is nearly impossible, so I constantly fail. But I keep coming back to a painting. It accumulates layers, each one - more or lass a complete painting. Complete but failed. The layers are sort of like Swiss cheese - they have holes through which in right places you can see the previous layers. Eventually there are enough of "good holes" and also, because of all the repeated attempts, I manage to do a good top layer. And then I have a painting that has enough intensity in every passage to satisfy me. Then it is done.

I love this idea of the layers of a painting as swiss cheese, with holes in them that allow you to see through to previous stages. Interestingly, he also has a section on his website where he documents the successive stages of several paintings in progress (although the link is misdirecting right now). It’s cool to see how radically different each hit on a given painting is. When I get this blog redesigned I’m hoping to have a similar horizontally scrolling set-up to post my own works in progress, rather than this vertical column.

Some painting advice for the day (or year):

Vivianite: What would you say to an artist just starting out?

Alex Kanevsky: Build up your self esteem to the level that might seem unwarranted. This will help you ignore both positive and negative responses to your paintings. Both are usually misguided, since they come from the outside. Be your most severe and devastating critic, while never doubting that you are the best thing since sliced bread.

The moment something works well and is under control - is the time to give it up and try something else.

Put all your eggs in one basket. Precarious situations produce intense results.

Jack & the Beanstalk

jack-4 jack-5 I finally started work in earnest on this diptych that I began last fall. I had been waiting till I found and moved into a new studio, because I didn't want to get all set up and then have to move, which would've been disruptive. However, I've nonetheless been stymied by an unexpected consequence of the move. The plant — which I find charmingly, distinctively odd, with little pink curly bits left over from where the new leaves emerge, and which I was looking forward to painting — has seemingly decided to die off, from the bottom up:



I went back to the garden store where I purchased it to see if they had any more, but no luck. The woman there surmised that perhaps the different environmental conditions in the new studio don't suit it as well as the old studio. Well, the old space did face south, and got a ton of light (too much, actually, for a painting studio). This new one faces west, and while it is plenty bright, there isn't that same flood of direct sunlight. I don't know what I'm going to do now with this painting:  I was so taken with this particular plant, and was amusing myself with the conceit of having the central stalk sprout out of the body and climb straight up, like a beanstalk.

jack-6 jack-7

I'm flummoxed. The idea for this painting was predicated on this very singular plant, which is now dying. I'm not sure what to do, except for try to find another, beanstalk-like plant. When you're working from life, the devil really is in the details.

Working Methods

Until recently, I have considered the one of the most important aspects of my work to be the contrast between the smoothly rendered body parts and the more expressionistic passages, what a friend described as “your combination of brushless articulation and gestural painting.” But the more I compare my experience painting in these different ways — one privileging my own perceptual experience, the other less about my experience and more about attaining a final result, and as such, a little tedious — the more I wonder what conclusions I should be drawing from it.  And it poses the larger question of how important the artist’s experience is, whether it necessarily informs the work as it is perceived and received by others. Could one be bored making a great painting? Or brilliantly engaged making something that turns out to be nothing special? It’s hard for me to believe that the artist’s experience of making doesn’t imbue the work with a crucial energy that continues to vibrate through the viewer’s experience of looking. But maybe I’m just a sap. At any rate, working directly right now is so engaging that I have considered jettisoning all aspects of my practice which aren’t based on observation, although this could well be my inherent extremism, kicking in reflexively to pass sweeping judgment on a situation, given any new nugget of empirical data. I have always struggled not to be so all-or-nothing, to live with conflicting information. To accept that all the ambiguities of life and art cannot be resolved into congruity by an act of will.

The same friend also wrote, “I think your painting is more focused than you think, and concerning the hybrid part that you worried about -- it's traditional, don't you think?  Those Florentines were drawing from life, inventing, and carefully copying other artists' work in town, the equivalent of using photo support, perhaps.” I found this incredibly soothing — nothing new under the sun, after all — and it relieved my self-inflicted pressure to justify working in different ways by always combining them in one image, by making paintings that are at least partially about that combination.  Which as my sister pointed out, is really hard. Why not separate it out, she asked? Make a painting that is completely invented. Make a painting of a plant, from life, and don’t feel you have to turn it into Daphne all the time.

I got excited by this idea of deconstructing my practice as I had conceived it, and suddenly ideas for possible new work rushed in, some to be made from life, some from imagination, some from photographic sources. And while no doubt the source material and working methods do contribute to the meaning of the image produced, are they really the most significant aspect of the final product? A painter should use all the tools in her tool box to make the images she wants to make, but must she necessarily get so hung up on the significance of the hammer, the chisel, the drill? Does the work always have to be ABOUT what it means to use a hammer, or the deep meaning of a chisel?

There is a time-delay between my thinking process and my working process. My thoughts, unencumbered by matter, race on ahead. But my hands, which have to actually do the work, fashioning images out of the stubborn raw materials, lag behind. So I will have been planning works in advance, with ideas for paintings lined up like airplanes on the runway, waiting to take off, and this virtual schedule feels vital to me somehow. I am so slow to finish things that I compensate for feeling like there isn’t enough new work in my studio by having a mental list of the things I’m going to do next. But then new data inevitably comes along in the process of making something, with potential import for the next thing, and I don’t know what to do. Must I use the information immediately, and toss out my existing plans, or should I carry firmly on, finishing the paintings as I had them in mind, and then incorporate the new thinking? Changing plans immediately and entirely feels like a loss, like throwing away work, but it also seems impossible NOT to adjust my ideas, given all I learn along the way. No doubt I have created another all-or-nothing false dichotomy, however. I suppose the answer will lie somewhere in the middle.

In many ways, I feel like a child-artist, still learning and figuring out who/how/what I’ll be when I grow up, while all around me my peers and friends go determinedly about the business of having proper careers in art, seemingly already very clear about what it is they do, and how they do it. I envy their clarity, their certainty.

Contingency Plan

As of recently, I have found working from life to be vital and nourishing in a way I have not previously experienced in my studio practice. Standing there, looking at a plant and making marks in response to it, I am just so . . . happy . . . that it occurred to me that maybe this was the perfect solution to my painting woes, a way of working that finally lets me fall in love with my own process after all these years, and trust in it. Because in painting this way, making “mistakes,” getting it “wrong” at first is not merely to be tolerated and swiftly covered up, but inevitable, ineluctable, deeply necessary:  it is the record of the process that itself becomes the finished work, not mere preparation lying unseen underneath some ultimately achieved surface. Things are corrected, adjusted, moved multiple times, even obliterated, but with the intuition that the impossibility of pinning down matter in an endlessly vibrating world is somehow integral to the attempt to do so nevertheless. (Plants, always moving slightly in relation to the light make particularly good subjects for experiencing this.)

With this attitude, working from life feels like the cure for the malady of experiencing every painting in progress as a potential monument to my own inadequacy. For the problem of hating my work while it was in progress, of feeling almost ashamed of its unfinished state, impatient that it didn’t look the way I wanted it too yet (and anxious that it never would, no matter how hard I tried).  A remedy for the notion of absolute truth, a tyrant since childhood, since, if nothing else, painting from observation makes nothing plainer than the absolute contingency of everything in relation to everything else.

Everything In Its Place

Last week, I started work on a still-life of the stolen apples, and stopped after several hours, in frustration. The set up just wasn’t quite right, the composition did not feel inevitable, and most importantly, I didn’t have that poised but relaxed feeling in my belly telling me that all was well, that I had taken enough care in my preparations, and could trust in my own observations to carry me through the process ahead. Is it the beginning of self-knowledge/studio wisdom to actually stop myself before I’ve gone too far? To notice when things just don’t feel right, and actually acknowledge it, rather than repressing the information & carrying on, hoping to wrestle success out of the materials? To pull back, reassess, and start over? My self-flagellating angel says that it might be, BUT, if I were really smart, I wouldn’t have even started until everything, inside and out, was in its place.

I basically knew that I wasn’t quite ready to put brush to canvas, but was impatient to get going – in part because the apples are getting soft, despite being kept in the fridge – and in part because, I get so anxious about how long everything takes. About not having enough finished work with which to present myself to the world. About not being good enough/smart enough/adept enough to finish things faster (or self-possessed enough to be unworried about how long everything actually does take). And despite myself, and, I think, worst of all, I feel a little guilty about painting fruit, like – oh, this isn’t a SERIOUS painting, cool young contemporary artists don’t paint APPLES, so just hurry up and get this little self-indulgence over with so you can back to some real work, work to get noticed with. It is a small but malign voice lurking in my stomach that says these things. I know that whatever an artist decides to pay real attention to is worthy of that attention. And yet I am still undermined.

If you are paying attention, things will tell you when they are ready. Subtle forces align, and when you are attuned to them, the work flows. Forcing things which have not yet coalesced into vision, plunging in and hoping despite experience to the contrary that this time, I’ll figure everything out as I go along, has never yet resulted in a happy working experience for me, the kind when I am standing quite still, and yet vibrating with energies.

In my heart of hearts, I always know when a painting is going to go well. A kind of vision of the painting as it could be arises in my mind’s eye, not in specificity but in spirit. And I have to keep learning to wait for it.

Less is More


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.


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?