Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Vincent is perfect. I'm not.

Hello all!

As I begin this posting, it has been 46 days since my last blog; as many of you know, at the end of September, my husband made the decision to move his office, our house sold, and we have moved into a work/live loft space in the downtown of our small town's commercial district.  The move, consolidation of the office and our home, huge estate sale and final closing all are, at last, over.  We are mostly settled in, loving our space, and enjoying the stimulating and creative new environment that greets us each morning.  Finally, I can turn my attention away from the move, and refocus my energies on my art lessons with Vincent.

From the moment I had announced my hiatus, I had been itching to paint.  As I packed up the things we wanted to keep, and decided which items were most expendable, my mind kept circling back to painting.  What seemed like hundreds of ideas kept running through my head - new techniques to try, or color combinations that I wanted to see together, or which painting I would do first in my new studio.

The move was making me feel energized and inspired.  Making all of the decorating and logistical decisions didn't drain me of creative energy, rather it seemed to be feeding it.  I felt like I was conducting a big and energetic orchestra with Vincent rehearsing as the first chair in the art section.  With every cabinet I emptied, and every box I carried up the stairs, I felt I was one step closer to ripping open and attacking a blank white canvas.  I could not wait to paint!

So why wasn't I painting?  After all, I was doing everything else; shopping for furniture, arranging kitchen cabinets, making new curtains, walking dogs, chatting with new neighbors, watching TV.... There was plenty of time for Words with Friends, and even the oh so addictive Draw Something, but the real question was, why wasn't I painting?

I had arranged the studio almost immediately after we moved in.  I then rearranged and re - rearranged again to get everything in just the right place.

I put my desk in front of a sunny, east facing window that looks out over the downtown and then beyond to tree covered hills on the other side of bridge.  I can see the cars coming and going, and enjoy watching the pedestrians sauntering, strolling, and occasionally hurrying their way past the stores, restaurants, and the coffee shop.

Just opposite the window, I put my "egg" chair and ottoman, which is always piled with art books and sketch pads.  It is a comfortable place to read and doodle, and is an enjoyable spot for watching the ever changing Texas sky.  Next to the chair is my china cabinet, filled with my beloved rummage sale dishes and the water glasses my mother and her siblings gave to their mother as gifts during the Depression.  Each year at Christmas, one, beautiful, cut crystal goblet was presented; I was lucky enough to get the nine that remain.

From the office, I inherited two banks of drawers, as well as large and small shelves, and they have been outfitted with all of my art supplies - all neatly arranged, accessible, and ready to use.  Although you can't see them, the puppies are snoozing doggedly in the carrier in the foreground...  They seem to have no trouble re-embracing their life's work, even in this new setting.

 My easel fits neatly into the corner between my desk and supply drawers; It is clipped with lights, at just the right height, and is positioned to offer an over the shoulder view right up Main Street.  My Mac, the hardware for all blogging and searching, is at the ready just to the left of the painting area.

As you can see below, my magic palette fit serendipitously into one of the drawers; this let me cram a lot more work surface into a lot less space.  There was also handy room for my water cups and brush holders.

 So everything was arranged in the way most conducive to painting, creating, blogging, growing, learning, etc. etc.

And I was on round 338 of Draw Something.  And my email was all opened, read and organized.

And everything in the new house, which wasn't even dusty, had been dusted.  Hmmm.

So why wasn't I painting?
In a word: Fear!
Let me back up to the packing phase of the move.  When we first made the decision to make this huge change, we walked around the house and the office and identified only what we wanted to keep.  Because our space was going to be so limited, each item we moved had to be carefully considered, and The ArtDemigod and I agreed that, on furniture, we both had to love it at least 90% in order to take it with us.  Personal items were our own choice.  He kept his base guitar and fly fishing gear.  I was adamant about my studio.

So deciding what to keep was easy.  And, honestly, deciding what furniture, old dishes, and household items to let go wasn't hard at all.  (Now cue the bad ghost movie suspenseful music...)

I was fine until I went into to tackle my "craft closet." This closet was a 4' X 12' room that had actually lived a life (under the previous owners of the house) as a tanning room.  As I had little desire to spend my free time cooking my already plenty wrinkled enough skin, I instead lined the long wall from the floor to the ceiling with shelves, which I used to store all of my "projects."

That room was cram packed with supplies for every imaginable type of creative activity.  Beading, sewing, needlepoint, embroidery, knitting, upholstery, and costume supplies were just a few of the items in my own private Michaels.  Along with the inventory, there were literally dozens of half finished projects in almost every imaginable stage of (in)completion.  I had no idea what to keep and what to let go.  It was, literally, overwhelming.

But because the estate sale had been scheduled, and we had a firm closing date, I had to move beyond my paralysis and into action.  But every time I looked at, or moved, or even thought about all of those piles, I felt like a complete failure. Goddamn Martha Stewart, the queen of expectations, the matriarch of unrealized possibility...

What I finally realized about these piles brought me to a very upsetting thought.

I wasn't the the artist who had committed to The Vincent Project; I was the lazy big spender who never finished anything.  (To be fair, there was no corresponding craft closet on the other side of the house storing all of the things I had completed; those items had been long ago given as gifts, recycled, or used up in ordinary living.)  But, in the end, I was still standing in a room with a lot of incomplete passes.  This was something I had to think about.

Without a choice, under an ever shrinking time deadline, as I sorted through all of this stuff,  I realized a common thread - the partially finished projects were all completed to exactly the point at which one of two things had occurred:  either I realized that the end product that I had imagined was beyond my ability to execute, or the materials that I had selected had some how not lived up to my imagined expectation.

In other words, the projects were abandoned because the product had somehow fallen short.

This realization left me feeling very out of sync with The Project, and Vincent, and Art, and Creativity, and exactly who the hell I thought I was.  Was this blog just another thing that I would start and not finish?  Was I even capable of doing this huge task of 52 paintings and essays?  Was this going to be something that would just wind up, unfinished, in some new craft closet in my new studio?

For about two weeks, I just hid from thinking about this whole issue by busying myself with moving in.  I made curtains, and arranged the kitchen, and picked out new furniture and lamps.

On the first weekend after we were all moved in,  I even tried to just kickstart myself back into an inspired state by attending the Lucien Freud Portraits exhibit in Fort Worth (It was FANTASTIC, even in my less than receptive state). I even engaged in a brief fling with two fascinating books on Picasso, which only left me feeling more guilty.

Nothing was working.  What had happened in that craft room had left me feeling completely uncreative and as utterly dried up as an old sponge.

So I decided to think about all of this for a week.  I told myself I wasn't even going to try to paint, and I wasn't going to go near the blog.  I was going to try to figure out what it was about these unfinished projects that had stripped away whatever Mojo I thought I had.  I was going to try to figure out why I had walked into that craft room feeling like an artist, and walked out feeling like a fraud.

The projects were abandoned because the product had somehow fallen short.  If the product had fallen short, did that mean that I had fallen short?  And what did "fallen short" mean, exactly?  After about three days of thinking, I finally figured it out.  I abandoned all of those projects because I could not finish them perfectly.  In all of this work, I was not allowing myself to be "good enough;"  it had to be perfect.  I had to be perfect.

What an awful realization that was.  There was no way in doing this project that I could paint "perfectly."  Vincent had already covered that territory; no one, no matter how good, could paint a Vincent Van Gogh better than Vincent Van Gogh.  To be sure, a lot of people, including myself, have tried.  But all of that work could only be, at best, derivative.

That was what I liked so much about doing the Vincent Project.  From the beginning, I never felt like I had to be perfect because Vincent already was.  All I was trying to do was to try to learn about painting by copying Vincent and forcing myself to write about it.  And that's when I finally got it, or rather reminded myself of my original intent.  The purpose of The Vincent Project was NOT to produce "perfect" paintings.  The purpose of the Vincent Project was to learn how to paint.

And that realization freed me, at least enough to pick up a canvas and start scribbling. (Please see Author's Note, below*) 

On Day 46, I went back to the beginning.  I decided to paint a chair.

In my very first blog posting, I mentioned that all of this started with a student assignment from a painting class where we were asked to copy a painting by a great artist, and I chose to paint Vincent's chair.  This was the chair that he had painted while living in the little yellow house in Arles in anticipation of the visit by fellow painter Paul Gauguin.

On the left is Vincent's chair - mine is on the right.

As a companion to the painting of his own chair, Vincent also rendered the chair of Paul Gauguin.


I would find my way back to Vincent the way I found him in the first place.  I could (at least try) to paint Gauguin's chair.  I could paint!  Finally! There was something I wanted to paint!

People read a lot of symbolism into the two chairs, saying that Vincent painted the chairs as portraits; they were expressions of how he felt about both himself and his guest.  Vincent's chair was a peasant's chair: rough, armless, and placed on a clay tile floor, probably in a kitchen.  Gauguin's chair, in contrast, was very fancy, with curved arms and a carved back, resting on a lush carpet in what looked like a more formal area of the house.

Vincent positioned on Gauguin's chair totems of learning (books) and culture (the lighted candle).  In contrast, Vincent's chair held the small, cheap pleasure of the common man, a pipe and pouch of tobacco.  Notice that, like the candle, Vincent's pipe could have been depicted with an ember of lit tobacco; instead he presents it with the bowl of the pipe turned away from the viewer.  Vincent's chair is seen in sunlight, Gaugin's is shown in a nocturnal scene.  In the background of Gauguin's chair is a lighted sconce, behind Vincent's chair are a box of sprouting onions.

Most telling, for me, is the door that Vincent painted into his own chair view.  As any patron of movie symbolism will tell you, a door is a portal, and a portal is an escape.  No door or window is presented in the Gauguin chair; Vincent clearly did not want to provide any retreat for the first painter to join him in what he fervently hoped would become a thriving artist's colony.  I wonder if Vincent meant all that I am reading into what he painted, or if there just happened to be a door right behind the chair he was painting?

So, with a newly opened, fresh, white canvas student board positioned to receive, I (re)started the Vincent Project by dividing a copy (that I had in a book) of the painting into quarters.  As I observed the image, I was excited to get started: Gauguin's chair was so much fancier than Vincent's chair, and it had all these awesome lights and very atmospheric electric blue shadows.

First, I transferred the image from the book to my canvas, one quarter at a time.

I drew out the entire cartoon,  then loaded my brush with the ochrey red that I observed underneath the wash of green on Vincent's wall.

Here is a close up of the red...

And a longer shot - notice the deeper hues behind the chair, away from the source of light

My trusty angled brush

And here is the green wash that I put over the ochre.  

Here is a view of the palette that I was using to make the green wash.  I think that my color wound up as a little to "tourquoisy," as compared to Vincent's painting, which had the wall as more of a hunter green.

Eventually, I do catch this difference, and it will get corrected later.  Can you see what I missed?  Compare the right arm of my chair to Vincent's.  His has a beautiful, sensuous curve, while mine looks like the arm of the chair was broken and badly set.  I wish I had noticed this before I went on with the painting.

(Author's note to herself: "Shut up! Think about the process, not the product... It does not need to be perfect... what can you learn from the mistake?")

The close up at right shows this mistake in all its ignominious glory.

But I do like the way the ochre and the green are vibrating against each other; it is so cool how our eyes process these opposite colors and make them come alive.

On this painting, I used a charcoal pencil (rather than a stick) to make the initial drawing.  I liked doing it this way because the pencil line was much more precise, and there was far less smearing of the charcoal, both from my my hands brushing against it, and from the black swirling into my freshly applied paint.
Here is my chair next to Vincent's, so far.

Next, I started to get my browns on.  I started with Van Dyke Brown and the ever popular alizarin crimson hue.

I also squeezed out the following:
raw umber and transparent raw umber,
burnt umber and transparent burnt umber,
transparent raw sienna,
burnt sienna and transparent burnt sienna (I did not have any transparent raw sienna).

Notice how all of these groovy browns have a raw or burnt option, as well as a "regular" (opaque) or a transparent option.

It was a lovely lesson to have all of these choices ordered onto my palette.  I admit it was confusing at first, but each of these tubes contains a unique product, and each of these products does a different and very individual thing on the canvas.

After reviewing the theme of this week's blog, here is my advice: do not be afraid of "wasting" paint.  You cannot learn from paint that is trapped in a tube.  Release the paint and let it teach you.

Observe my lesson plan below:  With the exception of the transparent raw sienna and Van Dyke brown (both shown at the bottom of the picture; raw sienna is on the left), transparents are on the right, and opaques are on the left.  The colors are ordered, (top to bottom, left to right) as raw umber, transparent raw umber; burnt umber, transparent burnt umber; burnt sienna, transparent burnt sienna, then transparent raw sienna and Van Dyke brown.  Alizarin crimson is (as of the photo session) still locked in its tube.

Ultimately, this is a rose by any other name situation.  The bottom line is that the colors are simply ways of expressing an observation or idea.  It is less important to focus on their names, and more important to focus on what they can do for you in your painting.  That said, knowing the names will keep you from a hunt and peck method of finding which color you want.  So, don't get bogged down by brown confusion.  Start squirting, painting, and take command of your colors!

At right are some browns on the chair.  I definitely used all of the colors that I had out; but I cannot tell you exactly what I used where.

(That is the point of a student board; it is a place to experiment and make mistakes - and remember, Martha - it doesn't have to be perfect!)

Speaking of "mistakes," has anyone yet observed what is missing from Vincent's original painting?  There are no stretcher bars  on the right side (as you are sitting in it) of the chair.  I observed this when I was doing the drawing, and decided that Vincent left them out on purpose because it would be confusing to see them juxtaposed against the patterned carpet.

At left is a close up of the front underskirt of the chair.  Notice how transparent the paint is, you can still see the white canvas peeking through the wood tone.

The Payne's gray outlining the rush seat will add depth and dimension to the straw as it is layered on.

I was observing other colors that I thought were missing, and threw out some cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, and a reinforcing portion of the transparent raw sienna.

These are the sunny colors of the South of France, and just seeing them got me in the mood for a glass of wine, the Provincial sun, and a Peter Mayle book.
At left you can see I have started on the rush seat of the chair.  As I painted the cover of the book, I accidentally slopped paint that should have been only on the cover onto the "pages" area.  (I know I don't have to be perfect; I just don't want to be intentionally sloppy.)

This was a classic case of coloring outside the lines.  And, although I am usually totally in favor of coloring outside the lines, in this case, I did not want the cover of my book sliding, Dali - like, down the pages below.

Luckily, I had my little "scrubber" brush handy to correct my mistake.  This type of brush can be purchased individually or in a set, and they come in various sizes for cleaning up all sorts of painting messes.

The red handled brush has stiff, white, synthetic bristles which can be used to literally scrub the canvas, as long as the paint you are scrubbing away is still wet.

The brush is really called a "scrubber," it is put out by a company called Creative Mark; look for it at your art supply.

When using a scrubber brush, I typically wet it in some water, then dab the bristles off with a paper towel so that the scrubbing area is moist, but not wet, when I apply it to the mistake.

The scrubber is such an excellent tool, and I am so glad that I have them to work with.

Shown at left is an extreme closeup of the newly cleaned canvas.

And now for the electric blue shadows.  I have already added a lot of greens and yellows to the rush seat.  I think it is looking appropriately rounded, and I am happy with the rough quality of the seat itself.

The first time I saw Vincent's painting of Gauguin's chair, I just didn't get the shadows.  They seemed unshadowlike, primarily because of the choice of color.  You could tell that they were shadows because they were placed exactly where you would expect shadows to be, but the color - that color was definitely not a regular shadow color.

But as I looked again, I realized that those shadows are what make that painting work.  Almost all of the other colors in the piece (with the exception of the green walls and seat) are warm and very cozy tones.  The green hardly even counts as cool, because painted beneath both the walls and the seat are still more layers of warm.  There are black outlinings, which are cool, but they did not pop at all until I layed in the electra glide.

Without us having to see the other side of the room, those shadows give us the atmosphere of a crackling fire's reflection on a well polished and barely used chair. Those shadows cool us, and cause our eyes to move around the painting in exactly the way that Vincent intended.  In the underlayment of the candle is the same bright blue - if the candle does indeed symbolize culture and knowledge (for Vincent), then he has absolutely bathed Gauguin's chair it.

Yet he does the same (although much more indirectly) in the painting of his own chair, by rendering the wall and door behind in a cool selection of turquoise and sky blue.  He may have just chosen these watery colors because he thought that they would look nice (if so, he was so right!), but who knows?  Half the fun in observing art is in asking the rhetorical "why" questions; the spell would be broken if we began expecting replies.

Above are some closeups of what I did to try to get the rug... Even Vincent's version was really just a series of different colored blobs.  Although I did not match him blob for blob, I think I got sorta close with it.  After doing the rug, I agreed with him 100% on the whole stretcher bar thing.

Below are some final shots of the finished painting.  What do you think?

Thanks for reading, everybody!  Please feel free to make a comment; I would love to hear your thoughts, whatever they may be.

*Author's note: Although it sounds like I just snapped my fingers to get myself out of my funk, nothing could be further from the truth.  The subject of perfectionism and its impact is a long and complex one, particularly for the women in my family.  I think that the impasse that I described at the beginning of this posting is really a signpost for me as I continue down the road of this project.  In future blog postings, there will be more said about perfectionism, it's effect on other artists, and the ways in which it has shaped my own life.

Happy holidays to all, and I will see you as much as I am able between now and the new year!