4. Start – then stop

When I said, in my second blog entry, that the sketch I produced in Echo Park was a lie, insofar as it left the glaring fact of a homeless population living in the park out of the frame, that wasn’t a declaration of defeat; it was an engagement of purpose – I was very happy to be able to identify what went wrong, because it pointed me toward what I’m after, and that is to engage the reality around me, pictorially. How? The answer, for the time being at least, is simple: it’s about location. I’m after a depiction of location and situation in all their immediacy and instability, done in a documentary, journalistic sense, rendered by hand.

What Echo Park taught me is that that objective may require losing some baggage, in the form of visual conventions, or, at the very least, picking the visual conventions I use conscientiously, instead of having them trot out by default. At Echo Park, the default I fell back on is pretty easy to spot: it’s the European model of the picturesque view, done as a plein-air painting.

But that doesn’t rule out painting places that happen to actually be picturesque, both for the love of it, and because there are critical lessons to be learned from painting landscapes whether as an exercise or whether as a serious subject. One of those lessons came home on a recent trip to the countryside outside Los Angeles. It has to do with the mystery of “the start.”

My destination: the Ojai Valley

In order to capture scenes, locations and situations quickly and effectively, last year I started painting a new way. I enrolled in classes, and began to make a study and a practice of “direct painting,” also called “alla prima” painting (an Italian expression meaning, roughly, “in the first place”), but what I will call POW!-painting. “POW!,” because it’s done in one shot, one sitting, wet paint laid on top of wet paint. Nobody I know calls it POW!-painting. I don’t even call it POW!-painting, but I will borrow from the comics to make a point, which is this: in spite of their POW! quality, direct paintings still have a deep structure, or an anatomy, and that structure is not just a condition of how they get made, it can also be an expressive tool – maybe even a philosophical one.

A little context: the anatomy of indirect painting – the kind of painting the inventors of the form used from the Renaissance through the Romantic period, right up to Americans like Thomas Eakins and Frederic Edwin Church  – is the result of layering. New layers of wet paint are applied over earlier films of dried color. The way the layers cover one another or combine transparently gives the image optical structure. Despite everything that the word “direct” suggests, direct paintings can have an optical structure too, but it’s different. True to what makes them unique, that structure is identified as a temporal quality, not a physical one.

Indirect painters call the initial applications of paint an “underpainting” –  they form a physical layer with a specific location. Direct painters call the initial application a “start” – just one moment in the overall flow of the process. It’s the initial phase of work where you lay out the major compositional shapes, then block-in the first layer of color. Well, that hardly sounds special –  any painting would have to begin that way, wouldn’t it? Yes … but, there’s more. Some plein-air teachers will tell you that you actually have to practice your starts – independently. I find this so agonizing as to be practically impossible. It means that you start the painting, then stop. For good. Finito. Do no more. It’s like mixing the batter, but never baking the cake…personally I don’t want to go home with a batch of batter; I WANT CAKE.

The frustration is further deepened by the fact that you can only know if a start is any good based on where it leads, and you can only know where it leads once you get there. So if you never get there, how do you know if the start was any good? Maybe that conundrum explains why many teachers find it hard to explain what a start should actually look like, even as they insist on your practicing them. It’s probably because you can’t dictate what a start should look like; I’m learning that it’s more a kind of intuition you have to develop. And that only comes with practice.

Perhaps another way to put it is this: for the indirect painter, an underpainting is like the skeleton of a picture. The finish is the skin over that skeleton. Yes, they’re fused, but they’re also distinct from one another. A start, on the other hand, is like a seed. In that case, the finish is the plant that grows out of that seed. They don’t resemble each other – they’re connected only in time. The finish contains all the beguiling features of the scene, the play of colors and light – that’s the “plant.” It’s tempting to want to paint that right away. After all, when you look at a scene, that’s what you see first, right? But if you don’t begin by painting what you see first, where do you begin? How do you look at a plant you’ve never seen before, and imagine what the seed looked like? That’s what I’m trying to learn, and even though there can be no formulas, there do seem to be certain options. You might begin with an average of all the variations in color that appear in one area. Or with a more intense, “overcolored” version of the finished look. You might begin with a lighter color (out of which a darker finish will grow). Or with a darker color, that will produce a dulled, less luminous finish. You might even start with a contrasting color altogether.

Maybe it’s not fair to call such choices a matter of intuition. They say the success of a painting depends on the start, but that start, I think (like the definition of success), might be a matter of interpretation, and a function of the artist’s power to choose. There are critical overtones to that; that’s the philosophical part I would like to consider in the next entry.

But first, back to the field trip where all this starting started. I drove out to Ojai, California, and spent the morning at the Krishnamurti Foundation.

The Foundation is tucked right into the foothills of the Topa Topa mountains, which form the northern rim of the Ojai Valley. Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895 -1986) was a fascinating man; the grounds of the foundation include both his home, which now serves as a library, and his guest house, which is now the Peppertree Retreat. The buildings are surrounded by iconic orchards of oranges and avocados, with stretches of brushland where stands of nopal cactus grow – the ones with the distinctive, flat paddles. It was facing one these that I made a start. (To be continued: See entry #7, Endless Beginnings).



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