Sunday, March 01, 2009


John William Waterhouse. Yesterday I went to see an extensive show of this artist's work at the Groninger Museum. I took a three hour trip because that's just how much I've liked his work. I was excited and filled with anticipation. I thought about the beauty and color he portrayed in his "stories" on canvas, thinking, "At last I will see these stories come to life!".

Exactly the opposite feeling awaited me as I gazed at each, technically perfect, painting. More, what filled me was the feeling of being in a crypt. His models (or should I say model because he seems to use the same woman for every face) were all posed like mannequins, beautiful and graceful mannnequins, but dead to the world. Everything was perfect, from the veins in his marble to the weave of his rugs and yet...nothing, no soul, no life breathed there. In fact, I was surprised to find that I like his paintings much more in print then in real life!

He does get some life going in his landscapes, then he drops in a model from the studio and the birds stop singing. The wood becomes dead and nary a leaf can be heard to fall from a tree. Not surprising then, that the one painting that struck me was "Saint Elalia", which can be seen here: (One of these days I'll figure out how to post outside images here.) She is truly dead and yet he brings more life to this painting than to all the other "live" models. His studies have more life in them. Pity he couldn't carry that over to his finished paintings, or "killed" it in the process.

So, once again, I am reminded that perfection and control does not result in beauty, no matter your skill in reproducing the real. Because real is not perfect, it is flawed, it is unfinished, it is faulted and it breathes life. This can not be captured by turning all to stone, immovable and unchanging. Leaving the mausoleum, oops, museum I strolled through the Saturday market and was restored to life, all the more poignant for this contrasting point of reference.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Glazing Over

I've been spending much time reading about what others think these days so I thought I'd put in a few cents of my own. Actually, the time I've spent on others thoughts has been scattered in short increments, because for the last couple of months, I've been in intensive study of portraiture. Whew! What a process! It's been a struggle both personal and creatively, learning new techniques but mostly banishing old bad habits. ("Out, out damned spots!," she cried as the nasty bad habits clung to the hem of her psyche.) Currently though, things are going good, connections are being made and old memories of knowledge being mixed with new understanding.

We are dealing with glazes now as we add color to the layers of grisaille. It is magic. I was lost for a while watching the magic, then I remembered a painting class I had back in college, back in the day as they say... The teacher was Frank Hobbes, a local painter and he was only there for a semester or a year, I believe. Too bad they didn't keep him because I would have taken any class I could have gotten from him and learned perhaps a bit more of what I am now learning years later. He had me paint a copy of a Rembrandt, a self-portrait (one among many). With that portrait I learned about...glazing! And with that memory comes back the knowledge that I can apply today. It's a case of adding a glaze of color to push back the painting into the shadow, and then adding more light, then when that's dry doing it again, and again, till it becomes clear and full of layers of light and color. It never ceases to amaze me how it works, pushing it back, then pulling it back out again into the light.

Pondering this miracle, I was thinking it's not unlike the process we go through in life. We have these moments where the light gets in, then times when it is pushed back down, then we must look for the light again and pull it out of the shadows. This happens in layers upon layers all our lives. It's so easy to stay in the shadows, feeling our way but never coming clear. So difficult to know where to look for the light, to pull it out of the murky darkness. But there it is, and when the light is revealed we become more three dimensional, more whole.

Some of those things that were in the shadows can remain. They don't need illumination, and actually lend to the beauty of the light. They have their own colors that will be reflected in the light to give it life. Without those shadows, there would be no light, only flat color. So now, as I paint my glazes, or perhaps in quiet moments of reflection such as this, I am observing the shadows, their colors, how sometimes I was in the deep shadow but reached for the light, no matter how feeble. I can feel my skin vibrate with the interplay of the two and their own nuances as I watch the portrait of my life develop and become whole. When it is done it will look just like me.

P.S. Thank you, Frank Hobbes, for believing in me. You once said I had the guts to be an artist and those are words I still cherish.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Creatures of Habit

Every morning my cat wakes me up in that very special way that cat's have. She begins by standing, stretching, then carefully walking all over my body. If this receives no response, she tickles my face with her whiskers, that failing, she will go scratch the rug, a sure-fire way to get me out of bed to keep her from destroying it. We go downstairs where she will circle, show her leg, rub against my legs, in other words, plea in no uncertain terms that she must eat or starve. A guy named Pavlov figured out why all this takes place a long time ago and since we're all familiar with his theory, most of us, I won't bore you with the details.

Now, right up there with Pavlov's star in the sky, I have placed Twyla Tharp. She has hit the same nail on the head, but at a different angle and it has gone straight to my heart. She has written a wonderful book called, "The Creative Habit". I haven't read the whole thing yet, so I can't comment on all of it right now, but what has had a major impact on my day is her concept of ritual. Well, it's not really her concept, because it has been going on for centuries, but her application of it is so clear that it can't be ignored. I won't rewrite her book for her, but I want to tell you how it's affected me.

Since reading her book, I began getting up at 6 am, feeding the cat (no need for an alarm when you have a cat) and doing yoga. Then, I have breakfast in front of the computer, do the rest of my morning preparations and go for a walk for an hour. When I get back I make a big cup of chicory and oat milk (my substitute for coffee) and face the canvas. This is my new ritual. I'd say I've been doing it for about two weeks now. Previously, I got ready in various ways without examining my "ritual". Some days it worked, some days it didn't.

This works. Not only does it work, but I've discovered something important this morning since I've changed my ritual. I slept in an hour extra, or tried to, anyway I lost an hour. I'm not doing yoga this morning because I have yoga class this evening and yesterday I changed it too; I didn't take my morning walk and went to the store instead. What I have noticed is is unsettling. I woke up this morning needing that stretch and I'm not getting it. Something seems amiss. I have to think about what I'm going to do next. I feel out of sorts. I did this last week too, missing my yoga in the morning and it took me all day to get some sort of creative flow. (I hope that's not the case today.) What I'm saying is that I've developed a habit. Just like the cat. If she doesn't get her morning meal, she thinks she might starve. Her stomach tells her that too. Just like me trying to sleep in, my body woke up at 6, ready for it's morning stretch to start the day.

This is all probably not new to those of you who have a routine. All the more so since most of you have a job to go to in the morning. For me, it is a surprise. I've always seen myself as someone who has shirked the "routine". I've never made myself consistently do it because I thought I couldn't stick to it. Now I see if you don't set up a routine, you will inevitably make one. Why? Because we are "creatures of habit". For the first time I understand that phrase. Habit, routine, ritual brings comfort, stability, and room to breathe because if the routine is there then other stuff can happen without too much crisis, like when the cat throws up or my knitting goes awry, that's O.K., because I've had my routine (cup of coffee, morning run, hour of the morning news, shower, whatever works for you).

I spent 7 years going back and forth from France to the States every three months, only to discover that I craved stability, staying put. And now, at (almost) 44 I've discovered the blessing, the freedom, of routine. Who knew? This same routine is getting me in the studio every day. I feel like Twyla Tharp handed me a key to a new door but the key seems very familiar. Over the years I've had routines to get to work, but never looked at them this closely. Never said, "O.K., this is what works for me and I'm going to use it as a formula to get work done". That has all changed, I am now a creature of habit.