A friend asked me this:
How do you stay focused on one painting for so long? Obviously they take a while but if the initial inspiration was just a sketch made in a matter of moments – how do you keep at it 4 months later? Where do you find the will to keep going?
To me, each painting is a song. It encompasses a mood, a momentum, a tone, a melody. It relishes in a particular note or chord progression. It screams or hums or parades through with a specific cadence or rhythm. During the time I work on it, I’m singing that song to myself over and over and over again. So I try to find songs that inspire me – songs I want to sing for that long or that need to be sung. It has to be something I want to sing for 4 months or 6 or longer. I am going to wake up and sing it every day and I’m going to go to bed singing it as well. To me, ultimately, there’s only one thing that is worth that. I don’t have a word for it. it is neither a shape nor a sound. But it leads me onwards. And I know it when I see it. And each painting sings another little part of it.
The initial melody – it comes to me in that first sketch. I might be sitting somewhere and there is that creative breeze (or tsunami) and I jot down a few lines, some curves, shapes, a sensation. It’s a good start. It’s like writing down the first 5 notes of a song that’s floating through your head. But there’s so much space left for exploration.
Later on, as my eyes travel over the painting, they pick up different moments and find new themes and melodies to explore. Musical sentences weave in and out of each other forming unexpected harmonies and rhythms. There are relationships to explore and discover and these open the painting up in ways I hadn’t planned on. I try to find ideas that speak to this process. I love the unexpected.
After a while, much of the basic image is created. It is then that the real song begins to find its real voice. It’s there that the song expands. It is like going from a sextet to a full orchestra. With larger paintings, I aim to make each violin become twenty with each casting its own shade and voice to the choir. Each oboe, clarinet, kettle drum – all resounding as if they are an entire section unto themselves. I become a composer at that point with this living breathing thing I’ve created, expanding each moment to its fullest potential.
Each time I sit down to paint again, my eyes travel over the painting, looking for the moment – the hook – that draws me back in… and then I’m back inside it. The painting is finished when there are no hooks drawing me back in and each little moment blossoms on its own and as a whole
I think often of what Jerry Garcia said of the Grateful Dead song “Dark Star”. If you know that song, you know it’s a particularly lengthy composition that was filled with new explorations every time it was played. You never know what you are getting into with it. What he said of it is this (though I can’t seem to track the exact quote down anywhere): that what he loves about playing that song is that it can be opened up anywhere. Between every note is an entire world of musical possibilities and that there’s no other song in their catalog that has that kind of space within it.
I think about paintings like that and my favorites to work on are the ones where that divide between each moment, each shape, can be opened up into infinity. As an artist, part of my job is to pick and choose the moments that are worthwhile to follow, the ones that really speak to and with the piece as a whole and help it become what it wants to be.
There’s a lot of songs to sing and, likewise, to play. If I am to consider myself a composer of painted songs, I look for and wait for that which inspires me. It has to push the envelope, hit a point, be able to be brought, led, followed to a peak that….
Well, consider this: we never tire of the sunrise or the sunset or golden light that ripples a tree’s leaves or the slope of a mountain against the blue sky or the crash of the ocean wave or the clouds that tumble by overhead. It never becomes trite. There seems to ever be magic, exuberance, nuance, relief even, in all of those forms and sounds and spaces. Whatever that experience is – that is where I follow each piece.
And so, I am an orchestrator of colors. A composer who is lifting his brush like a baton to conduct now the purples, the oranges, perhaps the blues or whites…. slicing through yellows and then the roiling clouds in pale golds, cascades of shapes, sounds, these pieces that create some emotive context and lead me, you, us…. into the place it wants to go.
I’ve learned over the years to trust that place and trust myself in that journey. We’ll get there, no doubt. I’ve learned to be ever more patient with each canyon and trough, each peak and each facet of that jewel. So that when we come to the glorious conclusion, we’re left saying: THAT. That is exactly what it is supposed to be.
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